For area stockmen, this winter is looking very difficult. We’ve come out of a growing season where hay crops are sub-par. In the southern areas, too much rain kept producers out of hay fields as finding time for the hay to cure proved very difficult.
From central Angelina County to the north, quite the opposite problem was encountered. These stockmen did not receive enough rain to make any hay. I visited with more than a couple producers who spoke as though another 2011 drought was upon them.
It is important to describe for those not in the livestock business in east Texas that we have basically two different time frames in the year. The growing season for pastures and hay meadows typically starts in April and lasts until late fall. Commonly grazed forages such as Bermuda grasses or Bahia grasses and others can be readily relied upon to produce grazing for livestock and we can harvest excess forage for the winter months (our second season) when these grasses are dormant.
Feeding out stored hay and supplementing most hay with additional protein to get cows thru the winter is a common strategy for the dormant season. Most plan on cattle losing a little weight during the winter months, and putting it back on during the spring and early summer.
The dormant season starts at first frost. Frost signals the end of all warm season grazing. While the cooling weather in October and November certainly slows the pasture growth, frost brings it to a complete halt.
Any of the excess, still standing and frosted grass is certainly grazable. This grass will be referred to as “standing hay” in some circles. It was cured as any other hay, just not by cutting and letting it dry but by frost. While it may be just slightly lower in quality than the green grass a few weeks prior, it will still offer the savvy stockman a grazing opportunity for their livestock for at least four to six weeks.
Getting thru the winter months is always the most expensive part of raising cattle. In our region, we traditionally cut and bale excess grass to feed back in these winter months. Depending on the size and quality of your round bales, one can put up three to five bales per cow to ensure that you’ll make it through the winter. (Use this only as a rough guide, as many have used far more bales of hay and some compensate with other feedstuffs and get by with fewer.)
Another winter-feeding strategy is to plant a cool season crop. A fall planting of grains, clover, ryegrass or a combination of the them can provide excellent forage for the winter months. This
takes a different management style and skill-set but can be an excellent method of carrying cattle thru the winter.
In fact, if done correctly, many of the stockmen that use this winter pasture strategy expect their cattle to gain weight. The very best managers will buy thin cows to flesh out or purchase younger calves to grow out during this time.
Presently, we have very low cattle prices and hay is hard to find. The result is that many cattle producers are facing a tough decision: sell off their herd at greatly reduced prices or spend far more than normal just to keep cows fed.
My concern is that cow prices will continue to be driven down as many opt to reduce their herds rather than pay for overpriced hay.
Looking way ahead, stockmen can offset this dependence on annual hay crops by planning for and planting a winter cover crop during the fall months. Grains such as rye, wheat or oats can be drilled into the soil in the fall for the earliest grazing opportunity. Clovers can be over-seeded into existing pastures to provide grazing and build the soil. Perhaps the easiest winter forage is ryegrass. While offering the latest graze-able forage, it will certainly be the easiest to establish and will provide an abundance of forage well into early summer.