Planning Ahead in Case of Short Hay Supplies

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Local producers in the county I serve tell me they have only had one good hay harvest. As we eagerly await rain, the hope for a second hay harvest is concerning.

Our dependence on hay as the primary source of nutrition during winter months can pose several challenges. First, hay quality can vary significantly, and over time, poorly stored hay will deteriorate. Poor quality hay in the cattle diet will ultimately affect a cow’s ability to be bred, and her milking ability, and eventually can lead to a lighter calf at the auction barn.

In good years, the cost of hay production, transportation, and storage is considerable. Exacerbating that is our hot, dry summer to date. The normally high cost of carrying cattle thru the winter can be increased to a point where any for cattle producers is severely increased.

Every stockman knows cattle tend to waste a portion of fed hay due to trampling, spoilage, and selective feeding. We know this inefficiency and still tolerate it as feeding hay is considered necessary for a year-round operation.

So, let’s talk about winter pastures. Planted in October, and grazed from mid-winter through late spring, winter pastures have their place. Even with the inherent risk of planting a crop, winter pastures offer a tremendous volume of forage that can be superior in nutrition.

Superior nutrition can come from inputs (added nutrients) that will be taken up by these winter forages and consumed by livestock. Additionally, we have the option of clovers, a wonderful legume, which could provide protein levels consistent with alfalfa. Even properly fertilized ryegrass or small grains can provide more than enough protein with a digestibility far more favorable than many baled summer forages.

It is indeed possible to see reduced costs for wintering livestock on seeded winter pasture.  Study the seed and fertilizer costs versus the purchase price, transportation, time spent putting out hay throughout the winter months, and storage expenses. And certainly, consider the real value of the hay.  Poor hay will have to be supplemented with protein. This additional cost must be included on the ‘feeding hay’ side of your ledger.

If you are new to winter pastures, consider the following as you move in that direction. Choose a forage or forage mix that is well-suited to East Texas’s climate and soil conditions. Species like ryegrass, clover, and small grains are excellent candidates. I would highly suggest going to the website foragefax.tamu.edu. There is an abundance of quality, research-proven information. Scroll down to the Winter Pasture information in the publications tab.

Seeding timing will be important. A safe bet around Angelina County is to plant in October. Earlier plantings may certainly yield more forage, but germination of winter pasture followed by a dry spell will has resulted in some crop failures. Plant too late (think November) and you’ll have a greatly reduced time frame to benefit from the extra planning and expense.

Those who move forward with quality winter forage will find the need to implement improved grazing strategies to maximize their returns. Be it rotational grazing, creep grazing, limit grazing, strip grazing, or forward creep grazing, these methods will greatly increase forage utilization and get you the biggest return on investment.

Plant nothing without conducting a soil test to determine nutrient levels and pH, and probably what you are able to plant. Your input costs can vary greatly on the results from this and just going on a hunch can be financially devastating. A basic soil test costs less than $20.

For cow-calf producers in East Texas, the decision to plant a winter pasture after a dry summer can be a wise investment in the health and productivity of their cattle herd. By providing a nutritious forage source, producers can mitigate the challenges associated with relying solely on hay, such as nutritional deficiencies and high costs.

With proper planning, forage selection, and management, planting a winter pasture can lead to healthier cattle, improved weight maintenance, and more sustainable ranching practices. This approach not only benefits the cattle but can also contribute to the long-term success of our cattle operations.

Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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