IFAS Hosts Pasture Walk to Discuss the Benefits of Winter Forage

Dan Florida, Livestock, Research

By Patrick Troy and Jane Griffin
Regional Specialized Agent Row Crops, and County Livestock and Forage Agent, Live Oak, FL, University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.


As warm-season pastures in North Florida go dormant in the winter, livestock producers have two basic choices for animal feedstock: 1) purchase hay and store-bought supplements or 2) grow their own cool-season pasture forages. This past week, five UF/IFAS agricultural agents hosted a Pasture Walk at the Jordan Family Beefmaster Farm in Live Oak to discuss the benefits of winter forage production and grazing. Working under a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences grant from the statewide Best Management Practices (BMP) Program, agents and farmers collaborated to plant and analyze various forage species adapted to Suwannee County.

Participants on the tour saw various winter forage plots that consisted of grass and legume blends. Mr. Jordan raises certified Beefmaster bulls and calves for sale. By adding cross-fencing to three paddocks over the years, he now plants various seed blends into his bahiagrass to supplement cattle nutrition and moves them to new sources of feed.  The group started the day with a description of his pasture establishment (using a Plantovater grain drill), saw various forage blends in two fields and discussed his resulting productivity in terms of animal weight gain and stored hay.

In preparation for this event, IFAS agents collected both hay and pasture forage from various Suwannee County farms and sent them to the University of Georgia’s Feed and Environmental Water Lab. Using Near Infrared Reflectometry (NIR) tests, differences could be seen for each species and different maturity dates. Among the most compelling data: Winter-grown forages for grazing, especially those with legumes, offer superior crude protein and digestibility, as compared to stored summer bahia hay. If someone is producing baleage, a high-soluble sugar may be the driving factor in choosing a species. Attention to the producer’s goal helps to guide species selection.

Farmers attending were able to see the diverse pastures (planted to mixtures of rye, oats, various clovers, triticale, radish, turnip, vetch, and Austrian winter pea) and discuss the results. Some told of their own success stories with unique blends, machinery, and marketing partnerships. Others asked questions about economics. Whereas bahia has become the dominant summer forage, many producers still rely on stored hay in winter. As cool weather comes in the fall, a seeding of grasses mixed with legumes (like clover) may provide an opportunity for extended grazing the whole year as one develops early and the other in spring. Finding what works for your soil and location may take time and experimentation to meet your goals.

State Specialist Dr. Jose Dubeux from Marianna explained ways to measure the value of winter forage and how to define high-quality feed. The needs differ for animals at different stages of development. Lactating dairy cows typically require a high (~140) Relative Feed Quality (RFQ) to meet their nutritional needs (125-130 for beef cows), while a dry or older cow may need an RFQ of only 100-120. This is the reason producers should match calving season with the high-quality forage availability. In general, feed costs can be two to three times more expensive per animal than pasture. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the operation size, weather, machinery available, soil types, and quality. For instance, if you don’t have a breeding season, or do not own a tractor with planting implements, it might be substantially more expensive to plant winter forages regardless of feed quality. In a dry winter, seed may not germinate or produce much biomass.

With difficult economic times and beef prices, cattle producers may consider winter forages as a way to reduce costs and extend the grazing season. A 25 percent allocation is a good rule-of-thumb for livestock feed budgets, but care should be taken to evaluate the source of forage as well as its relative value when making purchasing decisions. The cheapest round bale may have been harvested late, wet, or of low-quality grasses. Ask about pasture management and species if you are not sure. You usually get what you pay for.

Benefits of Winter Forage

1.     Generally lower long-term expenses compared to hay

2.     Weather is less of a concern since animals can graze year-round

3.     High-quality forage leads to better animal performance

4.     Requires less labor (versus baling, confined feeding and machinery use)

5.     Better manure and soil management

To learn more about the studies underway or have your own forage tested, contact your local IFAS Extension Office in Suwannee County (386/362-2771) or Columbia County (386/752-5384)

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