top of page

Feeding the Herd: Pasture Management and Getting Hay in the Barn

Feeding the Herd: Pasture Management and Getting Hay in the Barn

Feed costs account for 80% of a beef producer’s cost of production, and off-farm feed purchases can contribute significantly to that. Grazing animals on pasture is critical to help minimize these costs.

A beef cow’s diet can be made up of 100% forage, making pasture a beef producer’s most valuable resource.

To make this resource go further, Ralco’s ruminant nutritionists have put together some best practices and strategies to get more nutrients out of your pasture and forages to lower off-farm feed costs.

Grazing Management 101

Developing a grazing management plan can help you substantially increase forage production and utilization per acre. Most grazing systems are either continuous, simple rotational or intensive rotational.

The following information is adapted from the University of Minnesota and shares the differences and pros and cons of each system to help producers pick the grazing plan that is best for their farm.

1.Continuous grazing: Turn cows out to one pasture and let them continuously graze.

  • Pros: Easiest plan with low costs in fencing and labor.

  • Cons: Under grazing and overgrazing are high in this system. Forage yield and quality are low. Cows will trample most forage and manure is spread unevenly.

Continuous grazing

2. Simple rotational grazing: Turn cows out to one pasture at a time to allow forages to rest and regrow.

  • Pros: Better distribution of manure. Can increase production of pasture 20% more than continuous grazing.

  • Cons: Fencing, labor and water distribution required.

Simple rotational grazing

3. Intensive rotational grazing: Turn cows out to several pastures or paddocks. Cattle are moved frequently based on forage growth.

  • Pros: Forage production can be increased by 30-50% over continuous grazing. Stocking rates can also be increased. Manure is evenly distributed and weeds are controlled through grazing. This method also reduces the need for harvested forages.

  • Cons: Forage must be carefully monitored to move cattle when needed. Upfront fencing, water and labor costs are high.

Intensive rotational grazing

Calculating Stocking Rates for Beef Cattle

Stocking rates are arguably one of the most important grazing management decisions beef producers can make. According to Oklahoma State University, stocking rate is defined as the number of animals on a given amount of land over a certain period and is typically expressed as animal units or weight per acre.

However, stocking rates can get complicated and vary widely from ranch to ranch. For example, a pasture in New Mexico and a pasture in Iowa have extremely different nutrient and production levels resulting in quite different stocking rates.

Ralco ruminant nutritionist, Dr. Jeff Hill states, “Often stocking rates are oversimplified to cows per acre based on weight, but that is only a fraction of the calculation. Stocking rates also depend on forage type, grazing plans, animal species, annual rainfall, fertilizer, location and more.”

Tips for stocking rates for cattle:

  • Every year your stocking rate could change based on rainfall, forage type, grazing plans, animal type etc.

  • Avoid routinely grazing below 3 inches of forage length.

  • Leave 5-6 inches of forage for winter and let pastures rest, especially during slow-growing periods.

  • Leave enough leaf area on forage that it can act as a solar panel and get nutrients back to the plant to regrow.

  • Conduct soil tests and consider fertilizing pastures or applying liquid additives for faster regrowth.

  • For accurate stocking rates based on your operation always consult with a ruminant nutritionist.

Focusing on Hay Quality

When needed, harvested forages will supplement cattle in the winter and early spring until grass returns. In some places, cattle can graze all winter, but when snow covers the ground, forage plans will need to be in place.

Harvesting forages focuses on three key areas: quality, quantity and preservation.

Boosting forage quality and quantity can help increase the number of cuttings each year as well as the forage quality. Research shows that liquid additives are being used to increase the microbes in the soil of pasture, driving more efficient nutrients to the plant. This helps increase the relative feed value of forages and results in quicker regrowth.

Preserving hay is necessary to ensure harvested forages retain their nutrient value and limit dry matter loss. According to South Dakota State University, when plant material is above 20% moisture it can cause bacteria and molds in the forage to grow rapidly. This produces heat and spoilage in the stored bale.

Additives like acids, preservatives or bacterial inoculants can help drop the pH of forages and limit the growth of the harmful molds, yeast and bacteria that can cause spoilage. This also helps producers bale hay at higher moisture without risking heating and spoilage while retaining higher relative feed values (RFV) by preserving more nutrients.

Hay preservative for hay quality

Above is an example of hay treated using a bacterial inoculant and organic acid preservative versus untreated hay. Both bales were baled at 28% moisture. When opened, untreated bales were brown and moldy with increased dry matter loss and reduced RFV. Treated bales were green with less dry matter loss and a RFV 42 points higher than the control.

While hay products have many benefits, there are some downfalls as well. Depending on product type and application, some products can erode equipment or produce inconsistent results if baled at the wrong moisture. Always make sure to bale at the moisture level recommended on the tag and limit rust to balers using dry granular products.

Implementing Supplementation Strategies

When forage quality begins to wane or changes in weather impact forage supply, there are three strategies beef producers can use to supplement cattle with nutrients.

1. Protein Supplementation for Cattle

Protein values of forages will decrease with forage maturity. Peak protein levels of grass typically occur in early spring and decrease into late summer and early fall, depending on forage type.

Protein is a crucial nutrient for rumen microbes, and low values will start to impact a cow’s ability to break down forage. According to New Mexico State University, when the crude protein percentage of forages is less than 7% of dry matter, there may be inadequate protein relative to the supply of energy, creating an imbalance at the rumen microbe level. This results in a decrease in fiber digestibility and forage intake.

Microbes in the rumen are only able to break down a portion of the crude protein supplied in a diet. This portion is called rumen degradable protein (RDP). RDP has been shown to support an increase in rumen microbial activity and population. This causes more rapid and extensive digestion of forages.

Therefore, supplementing even a small amount of a mineral with a high (80%) crude protein level can help extend low protein forages in late summer and early fall and provide more energy to the animal.

Beware, not all protein is created equal. If protein is not formulated correctly, it can do more damage than good to the animal. Always consult with a ruminant nutritionist before implementing.

2. Creep Feed for Calves

Creep feed is another supplementation strategy used to provide nutrients to nursing calves when forage quality and availability begin to wane.

The idea of creep feeding is grounded in a biological basis. As milk production goes down heading into weaning, calf requirements are still going up because the calf is growing rapidly. This creates an energy gap. This gap is often referred to as hungry calf syndrome.

Calves will start looking for nutrients elsewhere, typically forage, to supplement lower milk supplies. The problem with this scenario is often times the forage quality is nowhere close to the calves’ requirement, so weaning weights will suffer. Milk also puts an extra demand on the cow and forage supply to maintain production.

When forages begin to wane and milk supply slows, creep feeding can help supplement this nutritional gap to calves. While creep feeding can greatly benefit the calf and maybe free up a little more forage for the cow, it will not take any pressure off the cow from a milk production perspective. The calf will always prefer milk first, then creep and lastly grass.

Creep Feed for Calves

The challenge with creep feeding calves is evaluating the cost of gain.

“The key to creep feeding is to measure how many pounds of creep feed it takes to add additional pounds of gain per day,” said Dr. Hill. “Typically this sweet spot is between 3-7 lbs. a day and the economics work. If creep feed intakes reach 7-10 lbs., then creep feeding is seldom going to be a profitable endeavor.”

Consequently, at high intake levels creep feed can also provide too much energy to calves. For example, if replacement heifer calves receive too much creep feed and begin to get fat, this fat can deposit in the udder and impact milk production later in life.

3. Cattle Mineral

Vitamin levels and nutrients such as phosphorus will also decrease in forages as summer progresses.

According to Penn State University, phosphorus is needed in cattle for:

  • Bones and teeth

  • Energy transfer

  • Reproduction

  • Milk production

  • Feed intake increases

  • Bacteria in the rumen

Phosphorus is so important that cattle recycle it in their saliva to supply it back to the body -- almost 30 grams per day.

Lactating cows, pregnant heifers and growing stock require the highest levels of phosphorus. Mineral that is properly formulated for late summer and early fall can help supplement waning forage supplies and restore phosphorus and vitamin levels in these animals.

How Ralco Can Help Your Herd

Let Ralco help make pasture and forage management easier this year. For the last 50 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers keep their cows and calves focused on converting nutrients to growth and limiting waste.

Often, vital nutrients are underutilized or lost, silently eroding the health and performance of your livestock and operation. Our experts can work with you to keep nutrients focused on production and your bottom line.

For example, we can help increase RFV of harvested forages with a proven hay preservative Anchor™ for Hay. We can help increase forage quality and quantity of pasture with a research-proven liquid additive, Nutri-Graze™. And we can help you improve your mineral program and get more energy from your pasture with Rumatec™ Cow Calf Mineral. Let us show you the difference Ralco can make on your farm.

Schedule a FREE consultation with a ruminant specialist today by calling 507-337-6916 or emailing 


bottom of page