South Carolina beef cattle producers need to improve forage quality, let the cattle harvest it and feed less hay, according to Clemson University forage researchers, speaking at the recent Fall Field Day at Clemson University's Edisto Research and Education Center.

Studies across the Southeast indicate that the average cattleman feeds hay around 130 days out of the year, according to John Andrae, Clemson University forage specialist.

“Most producers can easily cut this to 60 days and excellent managers can possibly feed as few as 30-35 days,” he said. The key is proper management — which includes growing cool and warm-season perennials wherever possible, over-seeding bermudagrass with winter annual grasses and legumes to extend grazing, and planting alternative forages such as chicory to fill in those windows in spring and fall between growing seasons for the primary forage crops.

Because of the long growing season in the Southeast, producers often let grass get too tall, according to Richard Watson, forage specialist from Mississippi State University.

“It gets away from us, we lose quality and we don't have enough animals to graze it down,” he said.

Adding legumes such as alfalfa or clovers to the forage mix can improve the mineral balance and total digestible nutrients to a beef animal's diet, according to Watson. In addition, legumes provide the benefit of adding nitrogen to the soil for the base crops into which they are planted.

“Chicory is a good fit on the Coastal Plain where you can't grow tall fescue,” he said. “It's not like a grass. It's a broadleaf with forage quality equal to ryegrass. It has a deep taproot, which makes it drought tolerant, and it can give producers grazing early in September.”

Andrae considers chicory to be a “weak perennial,” likely to last only two or three years and it can't be cut for hay. “It's not like bermudagrass, which you can plant and leave to your kids,” he said.

With the price of nitrogen and fuel at high levels, Andrae urged producers to look for ways to cut down on equipment trips through fields. One way is to stockpile the last growth of bermudagrass. Instead of cutting it, leave it in the field and let the cattle harvest it.

He recommended that producers take better care of the hay they do bale. “We lose 25-30 percent of hay stored on the ground,” he said. Net wraps offer better protection to hay bales than twine wraps and barn storage is the best for preserving quality.

“Never store hay under trees,” he said. “Leave it out in full sun where it can dry out quicker.”

Producers also heard some advice on selecting by-products such as whole cottonseed, soybean and cottonseed hulls, and feedstuffs from the milling of corn and wheat.

John Irwin, Clemson Extension animal scientist pointed out that producers need to find out what the nutrient content is and whether special handling is required.

Kevin Campbell of the University of Florida Extension Service covered the strengths and weaknesses of a long list of legumes — long juvenile soybeans, aeschynomene, alyceclover, hairy indigo, alfalfa, white clovers, crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, ball clover, red clover and vetch.

More than 400 persons attended the field day, a record for Edisto REC's annual program, according to resident director Steve Meadows.

Programs on best management practices and the latest research were also presented on peanuts, soybeans, cotton, watermelon, pumpkin and precision agriculture.