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300 days of grazing: How to stretch pastures and feed less hay

Your beef cows graze pastures about seven months a year. The other five, you’re feeding purchased or harvested feed.

How do I know that? Well, it’s the average, whether you’re in a northern state or the South. Estimates from Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin all fall in that same window: cows graze about 220 days, then eat hay the other 140.

University of Arkansas Extension experts took a hard look at that number four years ago. The price of feed, fertilizer, and fuel had all taken a dramatic jump. They decided that the best thing they could do to help beef operators in their state was to find ways to extend the pasture-grazing season.

“We decided that 135-140 days of feeding hay was too much, it could be much less,” says Tom Troxel, beef specialist at Arkansas. “We developed this idea of the 300 Days of Grazing Program. As it turns out, the program is adaptable just about anywhere,” Troxel and colleagues told beef producers at the 2012 Cattle Industry Convention.

If the grazing period can be 300 days, that chops the hay-feeding period to about 60 days – three more months on pasture, three less on hay and/or grain. “That’s the cheapest feed we have, the pasture,” says John Jennings, Extension forage specialist. 

The specialists decided to implement the 300 Days program on demonstration farms scattered around Arkansas. They now have 110 farms involved in the program, with collective savings of over $200,000 so far. And, they feel they’ve just scratched the surface.

Getting started

They use a five-step process on each farm to begin the program.

  • Inventory the forage base on the farm. 
  • Determine the management practices that will increase grazing days.
  • Add complementary forages such as warm-season grasses and legumes to enhance long-term grazing.
  • Plan grazing and forage practices for an entire year.
  • Monitor and adjust as each unique year unfolds.

Here are some of the practices they like to incorporate.

Stockpiled forages. This is one of the most important practices to extend grazing. It is accomplished by fertilizing some pastures in August and letting forage grow ungrazed for two months or longer, accumulating forage for grazing deep into winter months. “We graze the bermudagrass first, starting in October and November,” says Jennings.  “After bermudagrass gets a freezing rain or snow on it, the animals refuse it. So it’s good until about December. On the other hand, stockpiled fescue holds up very well all winter. We start grazing it in December, and that gives it longer to accumulate.”

Strip grazing. This can double the grazing days on stockpiled forage in the fall and winter, says Jennings. It can mean a $10 per acre advantage. It usually involves electric fence to create the strips. It forces cows to eat all the forage in a strip, and reduces waste from tromping. “We don’t like a lot of permanent fence,” says Jennings. “Moveable electric fences give a lot of flexibility to move and adjust pastures and subdivide as needed.”

Interseeded legumes. Because they take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form usable by plants in the soil, this saves fertilizer, in addition to providing high-protein feed. 

Controlled feeding. When stockpiled forages are depleted, you will have to feed hay, silage, grain, or a combination. When you grind feed and practice controlled feeding, giving animals just what they need and no more, feeding waste and losses can be reduced from 25% to as little as 1%.

Fewer chores

Jennings says the savings from stockpiling and late-fall or winter grazing can save a producer up to $100 per animal unit. “One demonstration farmer has told us that hay feeding used to take him half a day, every day. But since going to strip-grazing stockpiled forages, it takes him about 30 minutes twice a week to move the electric fence. He’s saving $50 per animal unit.”

Several farms in the demonstrations are using the “whole farm” approach by applying multiple components of the system. Those farms have been getting up to 350 grazing days a year (almost no hay-feeding days) when the weather cooperates, and close to 300 days even in years when it doesn’t cooperate. 

Even after last summer’s drought across the South, some of these farmers were able to delay hay feeding until well into January. Quick-growing crops such as forage turnips can help after a dry summer, says Jennings. If turnips get any fall moisture (and they always do), they will produce quality grazing forage in as little as 60 days from seeding. He also says the 300 Days program adapts to small ruminants like sheep and goats as well as it does to beef cattle.

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