Aug. 16, 2012 - Under "normal" circumstances no cattleman would think of putting out the money to plant winter pasture for their entire herd, but with hay prices well above normal the past few years, some are considering doing just that.
"Normally, we tell people that it is too expensive to grow winter pasture just for cows, that it is cheaper to feed them hay and cubes, or hay and some protein supplement," said Eddie Funderburg soils and crops consultant for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. "However, this year, with high hay prices a lot more, people are interested in growing winter pasture for their adult cows, instead of just for calves."
The economics of planting forage or purchasing hay can vary.
"It can make a lot (of difference). Right now, it probably cost, depending on land, it cost probably about $150 an acre or more to put in a winter pasture," Funderburg said. "You might make two tons per acre with it, if things go well."
That would make a producer's forage cost about $75 a ton, and up until the last two years, they could probably buy decent hay for less than that.
"The last two years, hay has been much more expensive," Funderburg said. "I doubt you would find any hay that you would want to buy for $75 a ton right now. So, more people are more interested in maybe using the winter pasture, instead of hay replacement for the adult cows, instead of just for calves."
Planting winter pasture is risky. Unless the region has a nice, warm wet fall like last year, risk takers may not get any grazing early. They may be holding their breath waiting for grazing until March.
"It is not something that I would recommend to everybody, but some people are going to do that," Funderburg said. "Probably, the main thing would be your experience at it. If you have no experience at growing winter pasture and you decided you wanted to do it for some hay replacement, I would think it would not work out very well for you."
Aside from experience, there are a few other things a producer should consider before opting to plant winter pasture. Things to be considered: the amount and type of land to grow on, and of course, the drought-related risk.
"If your place is mostly native grass, rocky hillsides, that type of thing, it is probably not going to be a good idea," he said. "The other thing is, if you are not very tolerant of risk, it is probably not a very good idea, because there is a substantial risk of putting in winter pasture where there is essentially no risk in buying the hay, unless it burns up."
A major concern is the drought. Winter pasture planted early that isn't followed by rainfall can result in lost seed money, tillage and fertilizer costs.
"It is a pretty substantial risk that you have if it doesn't rain. So, if you remember last year, it didn't rain until mid-October," Funderburg explained. "We had some people that put in their winter pasture at the first of September, and by the time that it did rain, the seed had died and they had to replant. Others waited until it did rain and it worked out really well."
While the number one concern is the drought, second in line is the growing insect population.
"You would be worried about the insects, because there are a lot of grasshoppers and if you put in the winter pasture and everything around you is brown from the drought and it does come up and start growing, all the grasshoppers and army worms are going to want to eat your nice green grass," Funderburg said. "So, you would probably have more insect problems than normal."
The options are buy hay at an elevated price, plant and pray for rai,n or wait until it rains, then plant and pray the insects don't eat up the investment.
"The advantage of planting when it is dry, hoping it rains, is that if it does rain, you are going to have pasture quicker than anybody else does," Funderburg said. The disadvantage is if it stays over 100 degrees and doesn't rain, then you are probably going to have to replant when it does rain.
"If you wait until it rains to plant, basically the risk is way down, but if it rains for a while and it delays you from planting for a substantial amount of time, you are probably not going to get early grazing," he continued.
Those planting winter pastures might conisder rye, oats, wheat and ryegrass. But, they too have their risks, disadvantages and advantages.
"A lot of it depends on when they want their grazing," Funderburg explained. "The best species to get early grazing is rye. That is the advantage of it, it is high yielding, you may get more grazing early."
There are two disadvantages though: rye will not last long in the spring, it will play out in early April instead of later in May like wheat. A big disadvantage is also that it could affect a producer's relationship with neighboring landowners, especially if they are trying to grow wheat for grain.
"Rye is a major weed in wheat and another disadvantage of rye is that seeds are hard to find," Funderburg said. "So, if I did not have neighbors around that where planting wheat for grain and I wanted early grazing, which most people do, I would pretty strongly consider rye. If I had people who were planting wheat for grain within a short distance of me, I would not grow rye."
Another option if a producer wants early grazing is oats. It may even provide more early grazing quicker than rye, but it is not without disadvantages.
"A disadvantage of oats is that they are likely to die in a cold winter," he explained. "So, if you then wanted spring grazing, you would have to plant them again in the spring."
The major species that most people plant is wheat. Wheat's main advantage is that it can be used as a dual crop.
"You can run cattle on it up to a certain point, like in February, and then pull the cattle off of it and grow it for grain," Funderburg explained. "That is probably its major advantage. There is obviously no problem growing it around people who are growing wheat for grain. I guess a disadvantage of it is that it is not going to provide as early of grazing in the fall as rye or oats."
Finally there is the option of adding ryegrass to a pasture planted in rye, to add some extra stability.
"The rye plays out fairly early in the spring, so if you plant the ryegrass with it, it doesn't provide much for early grazing, but it provides for more grazing in the spring," Funderburg said. "It reseeds so well you probably only have to plant it every five years or so."
So, while it may end up cheaper to plant winter pasture than buy hay, there is a lot of risk involved ,despite all the options for planting. Consider these options carefully and discuss it with a local Extension agent or Noble consultant.