Strategies for Fall Forage

(Lesson 6. Managing for a Year-Long Forage Supply continued)

Stockpiled Cool-season Grass Pasture

bales of hay; photo by Edwin RemsbergStockpiling forages is done by removing animals from a pasture at some time during the growing season and letting forage accumulate for later use. It is commonly done in the late summer to provide fall forage which can be grazed after killing frosts. Stockpiling cool-season grass pastures can supply forage for fall grazing. The grasses that dominate many pastures in Maine generally produce most of their seedheads by early July. Therefore, if stockpiling is initiated after early July, the majority of the forage available will be leaves. Leaves are more readily eaten and are higher quality than stems. However, the quality of cool-season grasses declines quickly as they go dormant. Thus, the quality of stockpiled forage tends to be relatively low. Therefore, fall stockpiled forage is probably best suited to dry pregnant cows and ewes as opposed to growing or lactating animals. If the amount of land for pasture is limited, then stockpiling forage is not a good option since some pastures will have to be taken out of production in early fall when forage is already in short design.

Making cool-season pastures available for stockpiling in mid-summer can be a challenge. On most farms, all available acres are needed for summer grazing. To make stockpiling work on a consistent basis, consider some of the summer forage alternatives discussed previously.


Brassica crops include turnips, rape, typhon, kale, etc. The primary advantage of these crops is that they remain green and lush in the fall after most forage crops go dormant.  Thus, they can produce good animal gains on pasture at a time when other forage crops are relatively low quality. However, animal performance when grazing brassicas has been highly variable. In the literature, gains with growing lambs have varied from 0.04 lb./hd/day to 0.74 lb./hd/day.  However, average daily gains have generally been higher for lambs grazing brassica crops than for lambs grazing stockpiled tall fescue or orchardgrass.

The reason for the inconsistency in animal performance while grazing brassica crops is not well understood. Several management strategies can be used to try to minimize the variation in animal performance while grazing brassica crops: 1) allow the animals to become adjusted to the brassicas gradually, and 2) supply dry hay to animals grazing brassica crops. Brassicas should be tried first on a trial basis.

Alfalfa Regrowth

Alfalfa can be an excellent option for high quality forage in early fall. Research is being initiated on the effect of grazing alfalfa hay fields in the early fall (when it is not normally recommended to harvest alfalfa for hay). Preliminary observations imply that moderate fall grazing does not stress plants as much as cutting for hay. Therefore the risk of winter injury may be less when grazed in fall than when cut for hay. If this is true it may open up some opportunities for grazing late-season alfalfa regrowth. There may be some problems with bloat in ruminants grazing lush pastures of alfalfa or clovers and colic in horses.

Managing a Successful Hay Program

Similarly to planning for grazing, the key to a successful hay program is planning. Did you produce enough hay last year? Was the quality what you wanted? How and where will you grow enough hay to get through next winter? To start the planning process, list the acreage in each field you use for hay production. Then, estimate last years production as tons of hay per acre. The kind and variety of forage and the fertilization of each field during the past year is also important. Estimate the amount of stored forage you will use this winter. Finally, make a list of practices or changes you can make to help you achieve your production goals for next year. This section will discuss some management ideas for a successful hay program. Before we start there are two points to consider: 1) it costs little more to produce good hay than poor hay, and 2) forage plants are generally higher in quality when young than when mature (corn silage excluded).

The basics of growing ample amounts of high quality hay are to harvest at the proper stage of maturity and follow a good fertility program.  The proper stage of maturity usually means when an acceptable compromise between yield and quality is reached. It is generally recognized that harvesting alfalfa between bud and early bloom and grasses at the boot stage are good benchmarks for getting both high quality and good yields from a hay field. However, depending on what species of animal(s) you are feeding, as well as their stage of production, proper harvest stage may change to meet your goals.

If you have a pretty good idea about the stage of maturity at which you want to harvest your forage, the next step is to grow the amount of forage you need. To target production, start with a soil test. If you have not soil tested your hay fields in the last 2 years, it is time to do so. Otherwise you don’t know if low fertility or low pH may be limiting forage growth. Follow the soil test recommendations by applying the needed nutrients. A primary reason for lower than desired hay yields is low soil fertility. However, when applying fertilizer keep in mind the golden rule of forage production, “for every dollar you put into a fertilizer program you must make more than a dollar back.” If your realistic yield goal is 3 tons of hay per acre because of current plant composition and/or soil limitations, there is no need to fertilize for 5 tons of hay. Develop a nutrient management plan. Keep fertilizer and production records to help determine if extra inputs are profitable!

If other nutrients are not limiting plant growth, applying nitrogen to grass pastures will grow more forage. Yield response from additional nitrogen depends on many factors, including current soil fertility, soil type, rainfall, etc.  Often forage yield can double with as little as 50 lb. of N/ac. However, if forage gets overly mature after N fertilization, you have only grown more poor quality hay. This will probably not be a profitable use of your fertilizer dollar. We rarely have a shortage of poor quality hay, but we can almost always use more high quality hay.

One way to get the additional N to pastures is by the inclusion of legumes. Legumes add N to pastures, increase productivity and intake potential of grass pastures, grow more during the summer than grasses, and are high in protein without N fertility. Legumes, however, have higher fertility requirements than grasses and low flooding tolerance.

One way to get the best of both legumes and grasses in a hay pasture is to plant them together. Management of mixed pastures takes skill. A grass/legume mix harvested at the proper stage of maturity can produce high quality hay. Keeping good records of acreage, production, and cost can provide valuable information when considering interseeding legumes into grass pastures in the future. Advantages of a grass/legume mix for hay production over alfalfa alone include reduced drying time and lodging, decreased winter injury, reduced weed encroachment and soil erosion, and longer stand life. However, legume persistence has been a problem in both pastures and hay fields. Good harvest management, including not harvesting in the fall and a good fertility program can make for a successful grass/legume hay field.

The real benefit from a good hay management program is reducing your feed cost. Therefore, keep in mind when making hay that you are using that hay to feed animals. Higher quality hay can help meet the nutritional needs of animals with less supplementation (less cost). Have your hay tested and feed higher quality hay to animals with higher nutritional needs and lower quality hay to animals with lower nutritional needs. Knowing and understanding the nutrient requirements of animals for the stage of production they are in will help avoid over- or under-feeding.

There are several management steps to consider as you plan a hay program. These include:

  1. Target the yield and quality needed from your hay fields.
  2. Soil test and apply nutrients as needed to meet your yield goals, and consider using legumes as a source of N and high quality forage.
  3. Harvest at the proper stage of maturity.
  4. Forage test to better allocate your hay supply.

There are many things to consider when evaluating a forage program. Review your system and visit with your local UMaine Extension educator if you have any questions.

In this lesson there have been several options discussed on how to maximize the time animals spend grazing during the year, as well as planning hay production to meet your goals. There is not a single best system for all farms. Consider some of the options suggested, consider when you have forage shortages and excesses, and see what kind of forage management program you can put together. By diversifying your pasture system, you can reduce the impact of seasonal weather and growth fluctuations and give yourself the best opportunity to have abundant amounts of high quality forage available throughout the year.

The following questions are geared toward helping you develop a pasture management system for your operation!

  1.  How will you manage your farm to efficiently utilize early spring growth?
  2.  How will you manage to supply adequate forage availability during summer?
  3.  How will you manage to supply adequate forage availability during fall?
  4.  In the winter, how will you manage to meet nutritional needs of cattle at the lowest possible cost?
  5.  If pasture renovation or reseeding is in your plans, identify potential species for forage production. (Remember to take into consideration soil type, drainage, etc.)

Click on the links below to finish Lesson 6: