Rainout Grazing Options

Summer in Nebraska is usually characterized by warm sunny days that fuel thunderstorms popping up in the afternoon and evening hours.  Heavy rain, hail, and damaging winds are no stranger to us.  This year in the northern part of the state however it seems like the heavy rain has gotten a bit carried away.  While a bit of excess moisture is always welcome, the continual deluge this summer has left low lying hay ground flooded, fields hailed out, and producers scrambling to put up they hay they can get to in the narrow window between storms.  

What this means is we are left with lesser amounts of lower quality hay being produced this fall.  Hay meadows that are normally grazed as regrowth were harvested later or not at all, reducing our grazing options.  This fall and winter will require a bit of extra planning with these challenges ahead to make sure we are meeting the nutrient requirements of our animals, especially lactating animals in spring calving herds. 

The first step is to understand what resources are currently available. The hay that was harvested might be a bit farther along than normal, what did that do to the quality?  If you haven’t already been testing your hay, this would be a good year to start.  Depending on the lab you use, a basic nutrient test on hay samples will run $15-$20.  Near Infrared Reflectance (NIR) technology has helped provide more information at lower prices than ever before.  If you need some assistance on the “how” to sample part, your local extension office would be happy to connect you with a beef educator who can help out or you can look up NebGuide G331 “Sampling Feeds for Analyses” that will walk you through the process.

If you usually graze hay meadow regrowth and were only able to put up half this year, what will that look like?  Will you only graze the hayed portions or can you push animals to graze the standing forage too? Now is the time to start penciling out a plan for how to use that resource.  Regrowth on grass hay can easily be above 15% crude protein.  Mature grasses on the other hand are well below 10%.  Both are great forage resources, we just have to manage them different.  If the ground isn’t too wet, maybe limiting access to regrowth while animals are primarily utilizing the more mature forage is an option to be explored.  Additionally, supplementation with high quality hay or another economic protein source may be an option.  Just make sure that you’re running the numbers for both meeting animal needs and cost.  Overfeeding a high priced protein source isn’t doing anyone favors except the person who made the sale.

One final option that might be considered is using annual forages to fill the gap.  The window to get seed in the ground for a viable fall grazing resource is rabidly closing, so you’ll need to act quickly.  Work done at UNL by Dr. Mary Drewnoski and Dr. Daren Redfern have shown that even a simple rye/brassica mixture planted in the late summer/early fall can produce large amounts of high quality forage.  The best part about this is that the oats and brassicas will hold their quality into the winter, well after the first freeze, so a producer can let the crop grow, gaining yield.  After that first frost when the plants quit actively growing, start grazing.  Pairing this with crop residues can provide plenty of quality forage well into the winter to meet your animal’s needs without having to feed anything.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu .