Stockpiling fescue in the fall is a "can't miss" practice for beef producer Dale Helwig. The Columbus, Kan., cattleman said his goal is to provide winter grazing for 100 spring and 60 fall calvers.
Helwig, who retains ownership on his cattle and sells grid-priced fed calves, said fescue gives him the high nutritional quality he needs from grass. In addition, stockpiling improves grass health while reducing the need for a mechanical harvest.
About half of the producer's 440 grass acres is in fescue. The other half is in bermudagrass. This gives him cool- and warm-season grazing for the herd. He keeps fescue in a vegetative growing state by clipping seed heads with a mower. He doesn't allow cattle to graze it lower than 4 inches.
Although bermuda is the primary summer forage, fescue pastures intended for stockpiling are periodically grazed in the warmer months to keep them fairly short prior to fall green-up. At that point, usually in mid- to late August, the cows are removed, and Helwig applies 40 to 50 pounds of actual nitrogen (N) in the form of urea. Phosphorus and potassium are provided according to soil tests conducted every three years. He keeps the cows off the fescue until November, allowing forage to accumulate and the plants to recover.
One key to Helwig's success is his avoidance of overgrazing. This can lead to root death, as fescue plants use up any available carbohydrates needed to regrow leaves. Stockpiling provides time for those roots to "recharge," said Helwig, who is also a Kansas State University Extension agriculture and natural resources agent.
After a frost, fescue can be grazed down without harming the plants. "In a dry year, you do what you have to do, but it is important to hold the cattle off until grass is dormant so you don't hurt future growth," Helwig explained.
With better grass, he also aims for better forage utilization through a strip-grazing system. A hot wire that extends from one perimeter fence to the opposite side creates a grazing strip. The wire is moved to allow cattle access to fresh growth every three days.
"I'd estimate I get about 70% utilization with strip-grazing compared to the 50% or less I'd expect from allowing free access to the whole pasture. A 17-acre pasture, for example, will last 30 to 40 pairs one month," Helwig said. He added that fall calvers requiring a high nutritional plane for efficient rebreeding are supplemented daily with 4 to 5 pounds of grain per head.
Grazing quality is typically quite good in stockpiled pastures. Helwig's are all high-endophyte tall fescue, but he is transitioning toward novel endophyte varieties. Use of these varieties is increasing in popularity among cattle producers because they don't produce the toxin that causes fescue toxicosis.
Last year, he tested his fescue grass in early December. The lowest analysis, based on the whole plant, was 11.8% crude protein. The highest rating, based on the top half of the plant that cattle consume, was 17% crude protein. Total digestible nutrients (TDN) ranged from 55 to 57%.
"You'd have to feed some very high- quality hay to match the stockpiled grass," Helwig noted. "If you're grazing spring calvers, you don't need to supplement protein, but I especially like my fall cows on it. They can take advantage of the quality because of their higher nutrient needs."
After the stockpiled fescue is grazed down in late December, cows are removed, and Helwig runs a drag harrow over the pasture to distribute manure. Cattle won't get back on the pasture until March after a 60- to 80-pound N application goes out in late February.
There is one more thing Helwig said he especially likes about stockpiling fescue, and it has nothing to do with TDNs or protein levels.
"I really like the fact that I can move the fence a lot faster than I can move hay," he said.
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