When the Virginia Tech Extension service kicked off its Graze 300 VA program in 2015, members didn't have to think about getting Roy Boldridge on board. He was ahead of them by about 15 years.
"Graze 300 is about managing and rotating pastures. It just makes sense to me," said the Rixeyville cattleman, adding that the end goal of the program is to lengthen the grazing season and reduce expenses by cutting hay use.
Every day of grazing is a day he saves on the cost of feeding hay, and sometimes that can add up to almost the entire year. Boldridge keeps a 120- to 130-head commercial cow herd, along with replacement heifers and weaned calves. The hay he does feed is typically more a supplement than the main course.
"Most years, I get by with 100 to 150 rolls of hay, and that's with me keeping some stockers, too," he said. Boldridge, who is in the hay business himself, says a 5-by-6-foot roll of hay (the equivalent of around 32 square bales) sells for around $90 to $120 in his area.
The centerpiece of Boldridge's grazing system is the winter stockpile. In August, he pulls pastures out of the grazing rotation and lets them grow for standing hay. His goal is to stockpile 80% of his 250 acres of permanent pasture plus 65 acres of hay. In the meantime, cows graze volunteer crabgrass, which is preferable to fescue during the hot weather. A few of his smaller pastures are novel-endophyte fescue, but most are Kentucky 31 fescue, which contains a toxic endophyte that causes constriction of blood vessels in cattle, making them more susceptible to heat stress. The toxin has also been shown to lower gains, milking ability and fertility.
Boldridge likes to leave at least a 3- to 4-inch residue of forage before he moves cattle off a pasture. If they're on crabgrass, he'll take it lower, noting that crabgrass and most summer grasses lose quality and palatability after a killing frost, so there's no need to let them regrow. He's found a 28-day rest period during the growing season for summer annuals allows them to make seed and volunteer the next year. If needed, he supplements crabgrass grazing with hay to make sure he gets that winter stockpile built without a loss in body condition.
"Cattle stay in better flesh, breed back better, and calves will weigh and grade better on stockpile than they will on hay," Boldridge said.
THE UPSIDE TO FESCUE
It may not be perfect, but fescue stockpiles beautifully, said Fauquier County Extension agent Tim Mize. "It holds its quality and condition. When we've tested stockpiled fescue, I can't think of a case where it isn't higher quality than hay."
Early winter, Mize said nutritional values for stockpiled fescue in his area average around 16% crude protein (CP) and 60% total digestible nutrients (TDN). By winter's end, it is strong, averaging 12% CP and 55% TDN.
Boldridge said there's an art to rationing stockpiled forage. He lets cattle strip-graze using a strand of electric wire to concentrate them where he wants them. He portions off around one-third to one-fourth of an acre for up to 80 cows, moving the wire daily. He relies on his four-wheeler to make that daily move and maximizes his time by tagging and castrating new calves while he's out.
"We can usually make it until mid-February on the stockpile," he said, adding he has two fields of rye and ryegrass, partially paid for with cost-share funds from the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District. April is typically when pastures green up here, leaving about an eight-week period when Boldridge relies more heavily on hay. This accounts for most of his hay use yearly.
Amissville, Virginia, producer Norman Bower is another longtime fan of stockpiled fescue.
"It is as good as any hay you can buy," he stated. The practice has helped him cut annual hay use to around 75 to 100 rolls for his 80-cow herd. On his 90-acre leased farm, Bower said stockpiling is showing its worth.
He runs 40 virgin heifers and 15 first-calf heifers and their calves with no hay on a 90-acre leased farm. He supplements heifers with 2 pounds of dried distillers grains per head per day when needed.
"Stockpiling has allowed me to keep more of my heifers and let them cull themselves after breeding. Then I select those that perform on forage rather than trying to pick out the best ones at weaning," Bower explained.
After pastures green up, both Bower and Boldridge shift to a quick rotation program to make use of all that rapidly growing grass.
Boldridge puts most of his herd on a 10- or 15-acre field and moves them every day or two after they've grazed off enough to keep seed heads from developing. Moving into May, he slows the rotation to two to three days. By summer, he can extend it to as much as five to seven days, being careful not to take perennial forages below around 4 inches.
"If you don't overgraze them, forages are more productive and spring back quicker," he said, noting the roots typically mirror the forage aboveground.
Bower, who, like Boldridge, has been practicing rotational grazing for close to 20 years, added he really appreciates all the ground cover when it rains because it's eliminated runoff from the pastures.
THE SWEET SPOT
Even with all the benefits of stockpiling and rotational grazing, Mize, who is Bower's county agent, cautions against going to extremes when cutting hay use.
"The biggest thing about Graze 300 is finding the sweet spot between hay use and an economical stocking rate," he said. "That's why it is called Graze 300, not Graze 365. There are probably years where we could graze 365 days but with a lower stocking rate. However, most people with stockpile can economically get to 300 days of grazing."
Greg Halich, University of Kentucky forage systems economist, agrees with Mize on the importance of finding that economic sweet spot. He stressed that the most profitable number of hay-feeding days inevitably varies from operation to operation.
"In the fescue belt in most situations, the most profitable number of hay-feeding days will range from 30 to 90. The specifics change by the farm."
Boldridge feels he's on the right track. "When there isn't much profit in cattle, I can sell hay. I can run a wire very economically. I use geared reels, and a roll of Polywire for 1,650 feet. Posts are around $3.50 each, and they last for years. You do need extra waterers to do this, but sometimes I just use a hose and a Rubbermaid tub. I do what makes sense to me."
Editor's Note: To learn more about the Graze 300 VA program go here: https://youtu.be/….
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