How to Grow Cool-season Pastures

Put the chill on your winter feed expenses by planting cool-season forages for your livestock.

by Dani Yokhna
Black and white cows on pasture
Courtesy Hemera/Thinkstock
Winter pastures have many benefits, including reducing hay in livestock diets and saving money.

A cool-season pasture can dramatically reduce your need for stored feed and extend your grazing season through the winter months. The key to having winter grazing is stockpiling or saving forage for winter, picking hearty cool-season forage to plant, and practicing rotational grazing. With adequate rainfall, you’ll be set for success this winter.

David Wright has 65 cows in his dairy operation in Alexandria, Ala., and his cattle graze throughout the winter, eliminating his need for stored hay.

“I can have high-quality winter forage through my ryegrass from November until May,” Wright says. “The only time I’ve had to feed hay is during drought years.”

In the 1990s, dairy farming across the U.S. changed, with large commercial dairies replacing small family-owned-and-operated dairies. Wright realized that competing with commercial operations was possible by downsizing his herd and feeding only grass to his cows.

“Our cows were healthier and happier, the milk was higher quality, the tractors were in the fields less, and my wife, Leianne, and I had more time to spend with our children,” he says.

Wright’s operation centers on dairy cows, but the principles he’s learned can be applied to winter grazing for any type of livestock. His search for the best forage-management practices has led him overseas to places like New Zealand, Africa and Ireland.

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“When you look closely and walk through the fields in other countries where rotational grazing is truly effective and stored-feed expenses are high, you see the importance of making grazing available through the winter,” Wright says.

He adds that by establishing winter pastures, rotating grazing and stockpiling forage, winter hay can be virtually eliminated from livestock diets, as long as fertilizer and rainfall amounts are adequate.

Stock Up on Forage
Stockpiling fescue can extend the grazing season up to 60 days, according to Gary Bates, PhD, forage specialist with the University of Tennessee.

Tall fescue
Courtesy John Randall/The Nature Conservancy
Stockpile fescue to extend the grazing season.

“Fescue stockpiling is simple,” Bates says. “About the first of September, either graze or clip the pastures to remove all the mature forage. Then apply 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre after the fall rains begin. Then allow the fescue to grow as long as possible without grazing, even up to a killing frost.”

Bates recommends rotationally grazing fescue when possible so that less of the forage is trampled and wasted by the cattle.

“Tall fescue that is stockpiled for winter forage can be grazed down to 2 inches since the plant is dormant and not trying to grow,” Bates says. “It will lose some quality over the winter, but research has shown that the protein content will remain at 10 percent, even into February.”

The only time stockpiling fescue doesn’t work is during periods of limited rainfall.

“Stockpiled fescue makes substantial growth during autumn, and the waxy layer on its leaves makes it resistant to frost damage and weathering,” says Auburn University professor emeritus and retired extension agronomist Don Ball. “In addition, tall-fescue forage accumulates a high concentration of soluble carbohydrates in the fall and maintains its quality through the winter.”

Ball says that producers should closely examine the relationship between stockpiled fescue and other cool-season forages versus hay-production costs.

“Many cattle producers in the South, for instance, are feeding hay for 120 days or more,” he says. “However, some producers have developed approaches, such as stockpiling and planting additional cool-season forages, that allow them to feed little or no hay in some years.”

Some fescue carry endophyte fungus, which can affect the health of your livestock. Look for endophyte-free fescue to avoid fescue toxicosis in cattle as well as birth defects and premature labor in pregnant mares.

Seed Your Pastures
Once warm-season forage goes dormant, seeding cool-season, annual forage in the pastures can extend the grazing season.

“Ryegrass is normally broadcast or drilled into dormant sods of warm-season species,” Ball says. “Small grains and ryegrass, often with an annual clover, are planted on a prepared seedbed.”

Cool-season clovers provide winter forage and reduce your fertilizer bill. Red clover—nicknamed cow clover—is a hearty variety that germinates well and is adapted for growth in the eastern half of the U.S. White clover varieties also provide hearty growth and produce nitrogen in the nodules of the root system, delivering nutrients back to the soil.

Clover can be planted on a prepared seedbed, drilled or even frost-seeded. Frost-seeding, the least labor-intensive method, requires no equipment other than a hand sower. Simply sow the clover on top of the grazed forage or seedbed, and the frosting and heaving of the soil in cold weather will create the seed-to-soil contact necessary for germination. Some producers frost-seed and allow the livestock to trample the seed into the ground via hoof traffic.

Cool-season grasses, such as ryegrass, wheat and oats, germinate well and provide plenty of winter grazing. Before purchasing seeds, check with your local extension office or university agronomist to find out which cool-season grasses and clovers grow best in your area. Also, check with fellow hobby farmers in your area to see what species have performed well for them in seasons past.

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