Winter Fescue Stockpiling a No-Brainer If Your Pastures Aren’t Overstocked

12/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

EDINBURG, Va. — For the past several years, forage experts in the Shenandoah Valley have been placing new emphasis on an old technique: stockpiling fescue for winter strip grazing, allowing farmers to drastically reduce or even eliminate feeding hay through the winter.

“It’s a grazing management strategy that provides you with a very short-term and immediate payback,” said J.B. Daniel, an agronomist with the NRCS who has been promoting the practice through a series of field days on several Shenandoah Valley farms.

Earlier this month, the NRCS, Virginia Cooperative Extension and other conservation agencies sponsored a field demonstration of fescue stockpiling in Shenandoah County at Jumping Run Farm, owned by Jay Hafner.

About 50 people attended the event to learn more about Hafner’s experience with the technique. A second event was held later that day at Charlie Drumheller’s Bellevue Farm in Augusta County.

In order to stockpile fescue, a farmer grazes down or makes hay on a fescue field sometime in mid-summer, then fertilizes it with nitrogen and does nothing more until December, except hope for good weather.

“If you get any rain at all, it should begin to grow,” said Bill Patterson, a grazing specialist with the NRCS who led the field day in Shenandoah County.

Patterson said that in a good year, a fescue in a stockpiled field can grow 30 inches tall, with up to 4,000 pounds of dry matter per acre. The forage can contain between 15 to 20 percent protein and 55-70 percent TDN, making for extremely palatable and nutritious food for livestock.

With good growing conditions and appropriate stocking rates, stockpiling fescue can provide cattle or sheep with sufficient forage to graze from early December until new growth begins in the spring.

To most efficiently use a stockpiled field, Daniel said farmers also should use a strip grazing management strategy to maximize grazing efficiency.

“In general, every day you’re grazing your cattle, it costs half as much as every day you’re feeding,” he said. “It’s a low-cost investment with a potential high return on it, even within the first year.”

Grazing experts have known for decades that fescue maintains its quality longer into the winter than other forage species like bluegrass and orchardgrass that are typically considered more desirable. Virginia Tech conducted extensive research on the topic in the 1960s, Daniel said, and Patterson noted that winter stockpiling of fescue was promoted heavily to farmers in the area in the 1970s.

Because the NRCS has begun a new emphasis on grazing management and has staff with relevant expertise, the agency has once again begun heavily promoting the practice in the Shenandoah Valley over the past two winters.

Nevertheless, stockpiling has not been widely adopted in the area. One of the biggest reasons for this: overstocking, as is the case on many valley farms.

“If your stockpiling rate is too high and you just don’t have the land available to have the stockpiling, you’re just locked into that feeding regime,” said Daniel.

To have enough land for year-round grazing, including stockpiling fescue, farmers in the valley need up to three acres per cow-calf pair, according to forage experts, although more intensive management could allow for year-round grazing with a higher stocking rate.

Peter Hostetler, a Rockingham County farmer who worked with Patterson and Daniel to host the first recent stockpiling field day in the area two years ago, said that the technique has been very successful on his farm when combined with rotational grazing.

On one of his farms, Hostetler used to give 25 cow-calf pairs the entire run of a 35-acre pasture, and would feed between 25 and 50 bales of hay every winter.

This year, Hostetler said, he divided the pasture into four smaller sections for rotational grazing and stockpiling. He estimates that he still has about 10 acres of good grass left, enough to last the 25 cow-calf pairs through the winter barring severe weather, potentially eliminating all his hay costs on that farm without changing his stocking rate.

Patterson emphasized that it’s important for farmers to keep some hay on hand for emergencies — either if poor fall rainfall limits the growth of fescue in stockpiled pastures, or if severe snow or ice make it difficult for livestock to graze.

“The cost of farming is not getting any cheaper. It’s not necessarily how much you’re bringing in. It’s how much you get to keep,” Patterson said. “(Stockpiling) is much, much cheaper than going out and buying mediocre hay.”

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