Minimize forage damage to winter pastures

Over the last 20 years, the most profitable beef herds have been the ones that use some sort of extended grazing system. Proper planning and implementation of winter grazing can dramatically reduce annual cow costs without sacrific­ing productivity. But this practice can also result in damaged pastures. There are measures producers can take to reduce the negative impact of grazing on winter pastures and encourage better forage growth in the spring.

A common forage management tenet is the “3-inch rule,” which is to maintain a residual of at least 3 inches. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, such as leaving more grass when pastures are stressed in the summer and using different cutting heights for different species. For example, you cannot manage alfalfa like you do grasses. Alfalfa stores more reserve carbohydrates in the roots, but grasses need residual leaf area and are much more likely to restrict regrowth from close grazing or clipping.

One mistake producers often make in managing winter forages is grazing grasses to the ground, thinking residue isn’t important during the dormant months. How­ever, perennial forages go through a process called “nutrient resorp­tion,” in which they move nutrients and energy from old leaves back to storage locations within the plant. Warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses and legumes do this.

In grasses, leaves stay attached during the dormancy period and are a source of nutrients for grazing. Moisture is required to relocate the nutrients. As long as the leaves and stems have moisture, nutrient resorption can occur. Legumes store energy in the roots; perennial grass­es store energy in stems near the base of the plant. This is the source of the rationale for the 3-inch rule.

While all grasses store energy in stems, some grasses have under­ground stems, or rhizomes. Ber­mudagrass, Reed’s canarygrass and Johnson grass all have rhizomes. Hard grazing over winter will favor these species over species with­out rhizomes, even with adequate residual during the growing season. Species such as orchardgrass are less likely to be able to withstand hard grazing pressure and tend to decline over time.

If animals are kept in the same spot all winter, it is likely the area will be gnawed down to the dirt. Spring growth in this heavily used area will be significantly delayed. A possible mediation strategy is to use a specific paddock as a sacrifice feeding area during the winter. The best candidate for a sacrifice pad­dock is one that will be rotated next spring. This sacrifice field will have a concentrated feeding area and will protect the other paddocks from being damaged.

An effective strategy to minimize damage and mud accumulation is to change where the hay feeders, mineral feeders or feedbunks are located in the sacrifice pastures. This encourages livestock to go to different and unpopular parts of the paddock.

If there aren’t any fields to be rotated, then rotate animals, not leaving them in a given paddock long enough to cause excessive defoliation. Monitor the residual, again maintaining at least 3 inches of forage. Of course, the defolia­tion will not be uniform. The grass around the hay ring will be pound­ed down, while the forage 200 yards away may be untouched.

If you’re not satisfied with the performance of your pastures, there are still a few things you can do this winter to improve grazing next year. Assess the number of forage species in your pasture. If legumes are limited, consider frost seeding red clover when the freeze-thaw cycles begin in late winter/early spring. Typically, 3-5 pounds per acre of red clover should be broad­cast every two or three years. The clover will help with nitrogen fixing for the surrounding grasses and will also provide some extra tonnage and energy during the summer when cool-season grasses slow their growth.

There is not a “one-size-fits-all” answer to reducing pasture damage during winter feeding. Producers should analyze their individual op­erations and determine if there are small steps they can take to reduce the damage incurred annually while feeding in the winter. Reach out to your MFA livestock specialists for more information or assistance in developing a forage management plan.

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Fall deworming keeps cattle clean until spring

There used to be a time when we could look at cattle and know that they most likely had parasites. Today, most of the signs of parasites in cattle are subclinical, not read­ily observable, and may point to a number of other conditions. Calves aren’t growing like you think they should, weaning weights are down or the gains just aren’t what they used to be. Perhaps reproductive efficiency isn’t what was expected or pregnancy rates are lower.

Think of parasites as an iceberg. Most of the problem is unseen, but performance is affected. Parasitism is a numbers game. Cattle can toler­ate a few worms, but heavy infec­tions are detrimental. Worms are more devastating in young animals because they haven’t yet developed much immunity.

If you’ve done a good job pre­venting disease but have not taken a look at your deworming protocol, it’s time to talk with your vet. The conversation may go something like this: “Doc, I’ve been deworming the same way with the same product for years. Do you think there’s a value in making a change?”

Your vet may suggest a fecal egg count reduction test to see how well your dewormer is working and assess the efficacy of your current program. Then you can make an informed decision on what products to use.

Avermectins, such as Ivomec, and benzimidazoles, such as Safe-Guard, are the two general categories of deworming products on the market. Each has different modes of action. A general recommendation is using a benzimidazole formulation either in rotation with or at the same time as an avermectin to prevent parasites from developing resistance. Recently purchased cattle with an unknown dewormer history should receive a benzimidazole dewormer before being added to the herd.

The type of deworming prod­ucts and how they are used may be contributing to an increase in resistance. Cattle producers used to deworm once or twice a year. With the advent of products that doubled as fly control, producers started using them more frequently and seeing less control. If we keep using dewormers indiscriminately, we may lose the efficacy of these tools. To help reduce resistance, proper dos­age is crucial when using products like these.

So, when should producers use dewormers, both to maximize effica­cy and minimize resistance? While every operation will differ, there are general guidelines to follow.

Deworm when it’s best for the cow, not when it’s most convenient for you. It is recommended to deworm cows prior to the breeding season or prior to calving. When the cow has the highest nutrient needs, that is a good time to deworm.

Deworm all new animals so they do not have a chance to contam­inate the herd. Ideally, the new animals are isolated for a few weeks before commingling with the other animals.

Deworm cattle that are on pas­tures heavily infected with parasites due to overcrowded conditions or extended periods of moist, cool weather. Deworming of young stock (weaned calves, replacement females and yearling bulls) is important in the fall because animals less than 2 years old are much more susceptible to negative effects of parasitism.

If you effectively deworm cattle coming off pasture in the fall, they should remain clean all winter. Many effective options are available, including pour-on dewormers, feed-through products and injectables. Consult with your veterinarian and MFA livestock specialists to set up a deworming program that fits your production and management goals.

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The grass isn't always greenest in Missouri

Feeding hay in August is never a good sign. 

However, in a drought year like 2018, many cattle producers in Missouri could be seen unrolling hay, getting water to pastures where ponds dried up and putting out abnormal amounts of feed. To make matters worse, the available hay was scarce and low quality after the subpar forage crop. To survive the winter, many growers were forced to dip into their “fence line stockpile” of bales, and some even pur­chased poor-quality, high-priced hay from southern states, such as Oklahoma and Texas.

Farmers are accustomed to facing adversity. If it’s not drought, it’s flooding. If not insects, it’s disease. Every year, there is always that one variable that throws a wrench in the gears. Just look at 2020. There were monsoon rains in parts of the Missouri, and drought conditions in other areas. Meanwhile, places in between are on track to have a bumper crop.

A backstop for forage

When it comes to forages, particularly those produced for grazing, standard crop insurance products are generally not an option due to difficulties of quantifying price and yield. That’s where Pasture, Rangeland, and Forage (PRF) insurance comes in play. This federally reinsured product allows producers to insure acreage used for grazing and haying. PRF provides pro­tection against a single peril—lack of precipitation.

Producers may select from various coverage levels, produc­tivity factors and two-month index intervals to personalize their plan (they are required to select at least two 2-month intervals). The Rainfall Index program uses data from the Na­tional Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine precipitation levels. When the final grid index falls below the trigger grid index, producers may receive an indemnity.

Protecting price

This year, we may not have experienced murder hornets as warned, but most farmers—big and small—felt the sting of COVID-19. Livestock producers were left with declining markets or the lack of a market to sell their animals, especially late winter and early spring. Many sold their livestock as scheduled, taking a substantial loss at the sale barn. Others kept their livestock to feed out to sell at a later date, increasing feed expenses and foregoing revenue their lenders and pocketbooks were expecting.

These challenges highlight the importance of Livestock Risk Pro­tection (LRP), which insures your herd against a decline in market price. This federally reinsured product provides protection when the national cash price index, as reported by the Chicago Mercan­tile Exchange (CME), falls below the price coverage level. Produc­ers may select from a variety of coverage and insurance periods to match the time animals would normally be marketed.

This insurance may be purchased throughout the year. Pre­mium rates, coverage prices and actual ending values are posted online daily. LRP does not insure against death, loss or poor performance. At the end of the insurance period, if the actual ending value is below the coverage price, an indemnity will be paid for the difference.

Examples of livestock that can be protected under LRP are feeder cattle, fed cattle and swine.

Farmers never know what challenges they will face. This leads to an important question: Is your operation financially prepared for 2021? If you raise forages and livestock, these insurance options should be consid­ered along with other risk management strategies.

Contact your MFA location or visit online at to find your local MFA Crop Insurance agent.

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Take half, leave half

Over the past several years, cattle producers have shifted their perspective about their No. 1 “job” on the farm. Sure, they have to make hay, doctor sick calves, fix fences and many other chores, but the first and most important job should be to grow grass. Some folks consider themselves grass farmers before cattle farmers. This mindset ensures that grass is the foundation of their operation, and everything else builds literally from the ground up.

There are two major types of grazing management: continuous grazing and rotational grazing. In continuous grazing, cows are turned out on a farm with all gates open for the herd to graze wherever they please for the entire season. If the pastures are not overstocked, this type of grazing typically leads to underutilization of forage. Pas­tures that are continuously grazed have overgrazed patches right next to overly mature grass. This mosaic of forage growth is caused by cattle continuously grazing the tender regrowth. In some cases, this type of management is only using about 30-40% of forage growth. In other words, 60-70% of forage growth is being wasted.

A lot of times, continuous grazing systems are in place because there are limited water sources on the farm. Watering sources and other infrastructure are the most limiting factors to implementing rotational grazing. There are programs that can help remedy this problem, and I will cover those options later in this article.

Rotational grazing has a broad definition, but essentially it is man­agement that allows the producer to choose when and where a cow grazes. It keeps cattle from over­grazing an area and allows adequate rest periods before those plants are grazed again. This can be as simple as adding a cross fence to a farm and rotating the herd twice a year or as detailed as splitting up a farm into very small paddocks to rotate the herd twice a day. A farm that is rotationally grazed is also more versatile. It allows producers to use grazing as a functional tool to manage grass. This style of grazing management does take more time and work to implement, but the more work you put in, the more you get out. When performed correctly, the benefits of rotational grazing can be profound and allow for healthier cattle and potentially increased stocking rates.

At Missouri Grazing Schools around the state, the golden rule for rotational grazing is “take half, leave half.” When first hearing this, folks think that is a waste of grass. After attending the school, they realize they can actually produce more forage by adhering to this message. These regional grazing schools, planned by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and MU Extension, are designed to help educate and enlighten producers on management techniques that are not only good for conservation but also good for their wallet. Each agenda includes multiple days with sessions that discuss the benefits of implementing conservation grazing management practices.

Also, as mentioned earlier, an investment in infrastructure is needed to properly use rotational grazing. Producers typically need to add watering sources and build more cross fencing. This investment is not cheap, but by attending these schools, producers may be eligible for state cost-share funds that can help offset some of that cost.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there have been, and continue to be, several changes to this year’s Missouri Grazing Schools. Original­ly scheduled this past spring, the events have been on hold. At press time, several have been rescheduled this fall in October and November. For the most updated schedule, please visit Missouri Forage and Grassland Council on Facebook or on its website at The schools will be limited to number of participants, so please contact the instructor for your local grazing school to check availability.

We all need to be good stewards of the land because the better we manage forages, the healthier our herds will be, the healthier our soils will be and the healthier our pock­etbook will be. The grass is what feeds our herd, which, in turn, feeds our families.

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Cover crops add flexibility to grazing

While row-crop farmers expect cover crops to serve as a long-term payback from a short-term cost, livestock producers who graze cover crops see a more immediate return on investment. Planting cover crops produces high-quality forage and extends the grazing season into the winter, while also allowing pastures time to recover. The practice nour­ishes both cattle and the land with one crop.

Along with the benefits, however, there are some special consider­ations when using cover crops for grazing. As with any forage you feed, it’s important to know the quality to ensure you are meeting the herd’s nutritional requirements. This is particularly true when grazing cover crops. The quality will vary depending on the species, va­rieties and maturity. Forage quality parameters of most concern include crude protein, digestibility and fiber level as well as minerals.

Brassicas such as turnips and radishes often are incorporated into cover-crop mixes as a high-quality forage. They will have reported crude proteins of 14% to 27%, total digestible nutrients (TDN) of 70% to 80% and a lot of water—80% moisture is not uncommon. This combination can disrupt rumen function if you are not including higher-fiber forages such as grass hays, millet, sorghum or sudangrass. You may need to feed lower-quality hay, straw or other supplemental fiber to increase intake and maintain performance.

Some cover-crop species are potentially toxic to cattle. Be aware of these species, the conditions that increase the risk, and grazing man­agement practices that reduce the potential of cattle consuming toxic forage. The most common toxici­ties associated with cover crops are hydrocyanic acid (HCN), commonly known as prussic acid, and nitrates.

Sorghum, sudangrass and hybrids contain HCN in the leaves and stems. The concentration depends on the species, variety, maturity, plant injury or damage. The concen­trations of HCN decrease as the plant matures. Damage or injury to the plant from hail, insects, frost or harvest breaks cells and releases the toxins.

These grazing management strat­egies reduce the potential for HCN toxicity:

1. Delay grazing cattle until forage is 18 to 24 inches tall.

2. Avoid grazing regrowth under 12 inches.

3. Do not graze following hail or a light frost. Grazing 10 days after a killing frost is safe because the HCN dissipates quickly after the plant dies. When the plants are “lunch bag” brown, they are safe to graze.

Nitrates can accumulate in small-grain forages such as wheat, oats, rye, triticale and barley, or warm-season grasses such as sorghum, sudangrass and corn. Stressful growing conditions inhibit photosynthesis and increase the potential for nitrate accumulation. We typically associate nitrate accumulation with drought stress, but it also can occur during pro­longed periods of cool, cloudy weather. This is more likely in wetter, colder areas.

To reduce the risk of nitrate poisoning, provide cattle with a feed concentrate. This adds energy to the diet and dilutes the amount of nitrates eaten. Do not crowd ani­mals. High animal density increases the amount of plant stalks con­sumed. Nitrates accumulate in the lower plant stem. The picked-over forage in the bunk will have more stems, and thus more nitrates, than average.

A common complaint of grazing cover crops is forage waste. Forage waste can be reduced and harvest efficiency increased by dividing the field into cells based on stock­ing rate. Limiting the area cattle can access reduces feed waste and improves nutrient distribution. The most effective way to limit access is with temporary fencing. Fences can be set up prior to grazing or moving cattle into the next cell.

As you establish your grazing cells, be sure to consider access to water. This may limit the design of your grazing system, because many fields do not have developed water sources. An effective plan is to start grazing in the cell nearest the water source, and then move away from the water, allowing cattle to come back across the grazed areas to drink.

For more advice on growing, grazing and managing cover crops, talk with the livestock and agronomy experts at your MFA or AGChoice location.

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