Forage Management Tips
Maximize the use of grazing in your program. Grazing is a much more economical way of getting nutrition in to cattle than harvested forages or purchased concentrates.
Learn about the needs of the forages, not just the cattle. Forages need management just as your cattle do. Successful beef producers realize they are forage producers first and that systems not focused on good pasture management are rarely profitable.
Develop a pasture system with at least 10 permanent pastures. Size of the pastures does not have to be the same, but it is helpful if the forage production potential is similar among pastures. Divide pastures along creeks, at the base of slopes and according to other landscape features. Most systems in the Piedmont and mountains will not have straight fences. Use 4 strand high tensile electric wire for the perimeter, and use one strand of high tensile for interior fences.
Further subdivide pastures with polywire and temporary posts. Most efficient forage utilization will be where animals only stay from 1 to 3 days in a pasture and use most of the available grazing.
Develop a watering system. Having water in all the permanent pastures is important. This minimizes trailing back to water sources and movement of manure nutrients (fertilizer) off the pastures. Water can be efficiently pumped to all areas of the farm through buried pipe, or you can develop drinking tanks below ponds, tap springs, etc. Open streams and ponds are not acceptable drinking water sources for high levels of production.
Be sure you dont overgraze the forage. Most cool season forages need at least 3 inches of residual stubble so they will regrow quickly. For fescue, most efficient grazing will be from 8 inches back to 3 inches. Bermudagrass is hard to overgraze and it is best to graze it from 4 inches back to 1-2 inches.
Understand that the closer you graze the lower animal intake (and performance) will be. Dont graze too close on young growing animals or lactating cows. One thing that works well is to bring in young growing animals for a day or two to get the best of the forage and then bring in older animals to clean up the residual down to the target grazing height.
Use manure from cows as a fertilizer source. Move supplements sites around the pasture, try to scatter shade trees around the pasture, scatter manure with a drag after hay feeding and do other things to distribute manure evenly.
New Forages with Potential for the Piedmont
Rye and ryegrass. These are not "new" but have potential to be used more in the Piedmont. If you plant rye early on a prepared seedbed, it will give you grazing during late fall and early winter if the weather is not too wet. It will also start to grow almost 1 month before fescue giving you earlier grazing. Ryegrass grows less in the fall but later in the spring that fescue. It is very palatable and helps dilute fescue fungus toxins.
Bromegrasses. These are also known as rescuegrasses. The most common variety is "Matua Prariegrass" but a new variety known as "Stocker" is now available. They are very responsive to fertilization so they are of interest where chicken litter and other wastes are used. They are very high quality cool season plants that should give much higher animal gains than fescue. They are very sensitive to overgrazing so they must be rotationally grazed. They are also susceptible to powdery mildew, which is best controlled by not letting them get rank. Because of this they are not best for stockpiling or hay production. They can be planted in the fall just like other cool season forages and they should be allowed to head out and set mature seed at least once a year to get reseeding because the life of an individual plant is short.
Eastern Gammagrass. This is a warm season forage that is native to North Carolina. It is very productive, responds well to fertilization and is deep rooted so that it is drought resistant. It is difficult to get established and must be rotationally grazed because frequent, close grazing will kill it.
Switchgrass and other native warm season forages. Switchgrass is also a high quality warm season native, but it is very protective under poor fertility conditions (low pH, low nitrogen). It is also difficult to establish and sensitive to overgrazing. Before trying any warm season native, you should learn a lot about establishment and put it out on small acreages before attempting any large plantings. Most people have not been able to make them work in practical production situations.
Bermudagrass. Hybrid or common (seeded) bermudagrasses are very productive from late May through August when they receive adequate fertilizer. The hybrid "Tifton-44" works well in the Piedmont and makes a great addition to fescue in a forage system. It is expensive to sprig, and it takes several years to cover. Common is quick to establish, but because of its ability to produce seed it will spread and invade pastures, making it a risky choice for most farms.
Crabgrass. Crabgrass is a very good quality summer annual that can come in to supplement fescue pastures in late summer. The variety "red river" is a very good crabgrass, but many of our "native" types are also very productive.
Dallisgrass. Dallisgrass is a warm season perennial that was planted widely several decades ago. It is very difficult to get a stand so it was abandoned, but it now has spread and is a significant contributor to "old" pastures. It grows well in combination with fescue and clover, and if you have areas with a lot of Dallisgrass, fertilizing it in the summer and not overgrazing it will help it dominate. Moldy seedheads may cause a staggers in cattle when they consume them, so dont graze old seedheads...clip them.
Matt Poore, PhD
NCSU Dept of Animal Science
Beef Cattle Field, April 24, 1999
Upper Piedmont Research Station