Virginia Extension livestock budgets show winter feed costs make up 60 percent of total expenses for the typical fall calving cow/calf producer who feeds hay.  

One way to lower feed costs is by stockpiling forages for winter grazing.

Stockpiling is a process of allowing forage to accumulate growth during the late summer and fall to be grazed by cattle instead of the normal practice of feeding hay after the growing season has ended.  

In Virginia, cow/calf producers who stockpile, make the last hay cutting or remove cattle from pastures in early to mid-August to allow these fields sufficient time for regrowth before growth stops in the fall.  

Tall fescue is a common cool season grass found on most farms throughout the state and is ideal for stockpiling. It produces both higher yields and forage quality when compared to other cool season grasses used for stockpiled winter grazing.

A 3-year Virginia study showed that stockpiled tall fescue contained 23 percent more energy and 36 percent more crude protein compared to average grass hay in Virginia. For example, stockpiled fescue fields that received 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre averaged 13.9 percent crude protein and 68.1 percent total digestible nutrients.

Although there was a slight increase of 0.7 percent crude protein when the nitrogen rate was increased from zero to 120 pounds per acre, the range was small and likely biologically insignificant. Furthermore, the stockpiled fescue will meet the nutritional requirements of all classes of beef cattle.

The yield of stockpiled fields is dependent upon rainfall and nitrogen application rates.

The 3-year Virginia study compared nitrogen rates and source effect on the yield of stockpiled fescue. Stockpiled fields that did not receive nitrogen produced ~2,500 pounds of dry matter per acre. Yields increased linearly for each source of nitrogen. However, rates of yield increase varied between nitrogen sources.

Ammonium sulfate, broiler litter and urea are the most common nitrogen (N) sources used to fertilize pastures in Virginia.

The 3-year Virginia study determined the increase in yield of pounds of dry matter (DM) for each pound of nitrogen applied from the following products: ammonium sulfate (11.08), broiler litter (9.29), and urea (7.10).

Many producers apply 40 -50 pounds of nitrogen per acre to stockpile fescue for winter grazing.

Table 1 shows the response rate in pounds of dry matter and grass per acre using an application rate of 50 pounds nitrogen per acre and assuming that a pound of grass is 80 percent water and 20 percent dry matter:

Table 1: Dry Mater Response Rate to Nitrogen

Nitrogen Source

lb. N/lb. DM

lb. N/acre

lb. DM/acre

lb. grass/acre

Ammonium Sulfate

11.08

50

554

2,770

Broiler Litter

9.29

50

465

2,325

Urea

7.10

50

355

1,775

 

Clearly rainfall is one of the most important factors influencing pasture yields. It is recommended that nitrogen be applied when there is a high probability of rainfall in the weather forecast to maximize yields. 

June 2013 nitrogen prices are listed in Table 2. The broiler litter prices are based on a minimum of 45 pounds of nitrogen per ton.

Table 2: Nitrogen prices and costs per acre to apply 50 lbs of N

Nitrogen Source

$ /lb. N

lb. N/acre

$ /acre

Ammonium Sulfate

.77

50

$38.50

Broiler Litter

.77

50

$38.50

Urea

.67

50

$33.50

 

 

Due to the volatility of fertilizer prices in recent years, producers should check fertilizer prices in order to determine the most inexpensive source of nitrogen.

Other factors besides price

However, there are several factors besides nitrogen price that producers should consider when selecting the “best” type of nitrogen fertilizer for stockpiling.

Additional nutrients may be included in the nitrogen sources which will increase yields. For example, broiler litter contains phosphorus and potash and ammonium sulfate contains sulfur. Urea is most susceptible to rapid volatilization and leading to lower yields. It is recommended that producers use soil tests to determine the nitrogen source that will maximize yield.

The following example illustrates carrying capacity for one acre of stockpiled forage that received 50 units of nitrogen from ammonium sulfate:

DM yield =  base DM + added DM from N fertilization (Table 1)

DM yield = 2,500 lb. + 554 from (50 lbs of Ammonium Sulfate)

Total DM = 3054 lbs

Assume a 1,000 lb. cow consumes 2.5 lb. DM / 100 lb of body weight, then she would consume 25 lb. DM per day.

Thus, the 3,054 lb. DM from the 1 acre would provide forage for this 1,000 lb cow for 122 days.

3,054 lbs of DM/ 25 lb. DM per day = 122 days of grazing

Note: In this example grazing efficiency is not considered

 

Thus one acre of stockpiled fescue fertilized will provide ~ 120 days of winter grazing for one cow. As previously mentioned, rainfall has a major impact on the amount of forage stockpiled for winter grazing. Therefore many producers will stockpile 1.5–2.0 acres per animal in order to have sufficient forage to graze throughout all the winter months.

In contrast, producers may elect to feed hay during the winter months.

The following example shows the cost of feeding hay to a 1,000 pound cow that eats 25 lbs. DM each day for 120 days.

• A ton of tall fescue removes the following nutrients from the soil:

• 39 lbs. nitrogen, 19 lbs. phosphorous, and 53 lbs. potash.(5)

• Using June 2013 fertilizer prices, a ton of tall fescue removes ~ $65 of nutrients from the soil.

• 2,000 lbs. of hay (15% moisture) = 1,700 lbs. of DM or 0.85 ton of DM

• Dry matter requirements for one cow for 120 days is 25 lbs. DM /day X 120 days = 3,000 lbs. DM or 1.5 tons DM for the feeding period.

• 1.5 tons DM /0.85 ton DM from one ton hay = 1.76 tons of hay.

• Assuming that ~15% of the hay is wasted during feeding, each cow requires ~2 tons of hay for a 120 feeding period.

In June 2013 Virginia Cooperative Extension crop budgets showed that it costs ~$150 to produce a ton of fescue hay which includes ~$65 in fertilizer costs. Since every bale of hay that leaves a field is exporting nutrients from that field, the nutrients must be replaced to maintain fertility.  Otherwise, nutrient levels will be depleted.

For a 120 day feeding period, the cost of stockpiling two acres of fescue using ammonium sulfate or broiler litter is $93 ($38.50 fertilizer cost/acre X 2 acres + $8/acre application cost X 2 acres) compared to feeding two tons hay which has total production costs of $300. Thus there are savings in feed costs of $207/cow by feeding stockpiled forages. (The additional costs for temporary fencing for strip grazing should be considered on a farm-by-farm basis.)

Stockpiling eliminates some of the additional costs of labor, machinery, repair, manure hauling and other input costs associated with baling and feeding hay.

The bottom line, consider stockpiling fescue to reduce total feed costs.