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Forage Focus: Stretching out the Spring Flush of Forage Growth

21 May 2013

Ohio State University

May is a vital time for spring 'flush', when forage grasses should achieve 70 per cent of growth and perennial grasses reach full head, writes Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Morgan County.

For our grasses, this will most likely be the only time perennial seed heads are made, which will be during the next month for most grasses. As forage managers, we have two tasks to improve our grazing during this time of the year, writes Mr Penrose.

First, if we can remove the seed heads, the forages will move from the reproductive stage to the vegetative stage. This will stimulate new leaf growth and encourage the plants to start storing energy in the roots to help them through the summer stress and into the winter. A mature plant with a seed head on it will not grow as well and be of lower quality from being mature and having lower quality stems on it.

How do we remove seed heads? There are two options: have the animals remove them or cut them. Unfortunately, many grasses set seed all at once and that becomes a challenge for livestock to graze off. If the plant is starting to develop the stem that has the seed head in it, livestock may graze the tender seed head in the young stem. Some animals like goats my enjoy grazing the seed heads, but cattle may not graze the stems and seed heads in favor of the leaves at the base of the plant. Forcing animals to graze mature forages can adversely affect animal performance. If pastures get too mature, a good option is to simply clip them after seed heads have emerged. Another option if forages are growing too fast may be to set aside the field and remove the crop for hay later on.

What is the other way to improve our grazing this time of the year? Try to stretch out this flush of growth. If your pastures are healthy enough after last year's drought and growth has started, you can do a rapid grazing through the paddocks and slow down slightly the growth when the rapid growing begins. Another option may be to set stock (giving the animals the run of some to all of the paddocks). Then as the rapid growth slows down, initiate a rotation, possibly leaving some paddocks for hay removal if you anticipate excess pasture and need hay.

If you are short on pasture and have available hay fields, light grazing over hay fields, especially predominantly grass fields may be an option. I have grazed grass hay fields for over twenty years early in the spring and as long as I get livestock out prior to stem elongation, I still get a decent hay crop (there was one year I made a final pass in late April and we had virtually no rain through May: I had a poor hay crop that year). Another advantage to this is the hay will likely mature a little later providing a better quality hay crop. If you do this, do not overgraze, and if cattle are grazing on the hay fields, avoid keeping on too long during wet weather to avoid "pugging" of the field.

Mid to late May orchard grass and fescue field above that was grazed in April

A third option, which is more long term, would be to use different cultivars of the same species in in different paddocks as you reseed fields. As you can see in the picture of orchard grass, different cultivars can have different maturity dates which can stretch out the flush of new growth. In addition, new and improved varieties have improved quality, persistence, and insect and disease resistance. If you are considering a new planting, I highly recommend purchasing the best seed available. The additional cost is minimal when you consider the total cost of the seeding and how many years the forage should be in a stand. This will allow different maturing dates and lengthen the spring flush of new growth.

Each of us is in a different situation. Some may be very short on hay ground and have plenty of pasture, some may be just the opposite. One of the most important aspects of Managed intensive Grazing is to be flexible and try to anticipate what the forage needs and availability will be over the course of the season. Hopefully a few of these options will allow you to have a more successful grazing season.

Early maturing orchardgrass on the left, later maturing on the right

Maturity Determines Forage Quality

Of all the factors affecting hay quality, stage of maturity when harvested is the most important and the one in which greatest progress can be made. As legumes and grasses advance from the vegetative to reproductive (seed) stage, they become higher in fiber and lignin content and lower in protein content, digestibility, and acceptability to livestock.

The optimum stages of maturity to harvest for yield-quality persistence compromise is usually when plants are making a transition from vegetative (leafy) to reproductive (flower-seed) stage. Making the first hay cut early permits aftermath growth to begin at a time when temperature and soil moisture are usually more favorable for plant growth and generally increases total yield per acre.

After mowing, poor weather and handling conditions can lower hay quality. Rain can cause leaf loss and can leach nutrients from plants during curing. Sunlight can lower hay quality through bleaching and lowering Vitamin A content. Raking and/or tedding dry, brittle hay can cause excessive leaf loss.

Hay plants with an 80 percent moisture content must lose approximately 6,000 pounds of water to produce a ton of hay at 20 percent moisture. Crushing stems (conditioning) at time of mowing will cause stems to dry at more nearly the same rate as leaves. Conditioning will usually decrease the drying time of large-stemmed plants by up to a day and can result in leaf and nutrient savings.

Raking and/or tedding while hay is moist (about 40 percent moisture) and baling before hay is too dry (below 15 percent moisture) will help reduce leaf losses. Store to minimize loss, preserve quality and feed for efficiency. For more informaion on forage quality see the publication "Understanding Forage Quality".

Hay Quality Is Improved by Understanding How it Dries

The late getting started and seemingly slow growth of our forages this year may fool some into thinking that we can delay harvest in order to capture more tonnage without sacrificing quality. Don't be fooled! While the growth of forages has certainly been slower than we had hoped this year - and perhaps as much as 3 weeks behind last year - maturity will likely arrive right on schedule. In fact, I found cereal rye beginning to head out in Fairfield County this week. That means orchard grass and fescue are very near to doing the same despite how short they may appear to be. Regardless the date, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature and whatever weather she offers us at the time forage maturity dictates it's time to make hay.

University of Wisconsin Extension Forage Agronomist Dan Undersander says in his fact sheet that if we understand and use the biology and physics of forage drying properly, not only does the hay dry faster and have less chance of being rained on, but the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of the harvested forage are higher. Specifically, Undersander offers 3 key recommendations:

  1. Put cut forage into a wide swath at cutting that covers at least 70% of the cut area.
  2. For haylage: If drying conditions are good, rake multiple swaths into a windrow just before chopping (usually 5 to 7 hours later).
  3. For hay: If drying conditions are good, merge/rake multiple swaths into a windrow the next morning after mowing (when forage is 40 to 60 % moisture) to avoid leaf loss.

For more detail on getting hay harvested efficiently, see Undersander's "Focus on Forage" fact sheet entitled, Field Drying Forage for Hay and Haylage. For additional detail, you may also want to review the University of Wisconsin publication, "Best Practices to Hasten Field Drying of Grasses and Alfalfa" which Undersander also contributed to.

Coming off of back to back years of many challenges for hay production in Ohio, I've heard lots of discussion regarding alternatives for harvesting and storing forages this year. A couple years ago at the 2011 Buckeye Shepherds Symposium, Dr. Bill Weiss of the OSU Animal Science Department gave a presentation on making and storing forages for ruminants. The session was recorded and is available on-line. It covers nearly all of the considerations for harvesting and storing forages in order to maintain the highest quality possible. Forages are expensive to grow, expensive to harvest, and become even more expensive if not stored and fed properly.

If you plan to mechanically harvest any forage this year, in addition to reviewing the publications linked above, set aside 45 minutes of your time, follow this link, and review this presentation . . . it will be time well spent!

Will Weak Cattle Prices Continue?

I thought finished cattle prices were going to have a very bullish year with prices well into the $130s by now. Live cattle futures started the year with the same enthusiasm, but have deflated since. What went wrong?

The mystery can be unraveled by looking at supply and demand. On the supply side, the expectation at the start of 2013 was for a three percent decline in beef production during the first-half of the year. To date, beef supplies have been down closer to one percent. More beef often means lower prices.

There seem to be three demand components contributing to the weaker than expected cattle prices. First, the U.S. economy may have been weaker so far this year than anticipated. Second, reduced pork and chicken exports have meant that more of those products have been adding to domestic meat supplies. Third, retail beef prices rose to record high levels while retail prices of competitive animal proteins were not rising as much, or even falling.

Beef exports now look somewhat weaker than last year. The culprit seems to be the strength of the U.S. dollar. The dollar has risen about four percent so far this year. Even more dramatic has been the 12 percent drop in the value of the Japanese yen relative to the dollar. Japan is an important buyer of U.S. beef.

Pork exports have dropped off sharply this year, being down fourteen percent in the first two months of the year and chicken exports were down three percent. Lower exports means there is more pork and chicken that remains in the domestic market to compete with beef.

The weak U.S. economy has many consumers shopping for value and competitive animal proteins have had lower prices relative to beef over the past six months. Retail choice beef prices have been at record high levels this year reaching $5.30 per retail pound in March. Retail beef prices have risen relative to retail pork prices by about six percent over the past six months. Beef prices have risen about ten percent relative to turkey, four percent relative to chicken, and seven percent relative to eggs.

The recent Cattle on Feed report suggest some changes in direction for feedlot managers as well. The changes are consistent with the recent lower prices of corn and other feed ingredients. First, managers were anxious to place more cattle in March with placements up six percent compared to a year-ago. In the period from July 2012 to February 2013 monthly placements had averaged eight percent lower due to high feed prices. Secondly, marketings were smaller than expected in March as managers now seem willing to hold cattle somewhat longer and thus market at higher weights given cheaper feed. There is a lot of unused pen space in feedlots and managers want to use that any way they can.

Live cattle futures have responded to the downside this year. June futures, as an example, have fallen $10 per hundredweight from the low $130s at the start of the year to the low $120s today. Will they recover? Continued small beef supplies for the rest of this year suggest they will. Second and third quarter beef supplies are expected to be down three percent and should enable finished steer prices to maintain the mid-$120s. Last quarter supplies could drop by six to seven percent with prices rising into the low $130s. First quarter 2014 prices should improve a few dollars toward the low-to-mid $130's. These forecasts are all higher than current futures prices.

If crop yields are closer to normal this year, then much lower feed prices will stimulate expansion of all animal species assuming corn moves to near $5 a bushel or lower as current markets anticipate by harvest. More normal crop yields imply improved pasture conditions at least in the Southeastern U.S. and the Midwest. Under these conditions, heifer retention is expected to begin in the fall, at least in areas that have improved pastures and ranges. The magnitude of the expansion will depend on the level of improvement in crop and forage yields and on how low feed prices drop.

Generally, the early stages of expansion result in the highest prices across the cattle cycle as slaughter supplies are already small and heifer retention pulls down beef supply even more. This all suggest better days ahead for both finished cattle and calf prices.

May 2013

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