My wife and I lease a 2500 acre ranch/farm in southeastern Kimball County, Nebraska. Approximately 2330 acres of this property is native rangeland or pasture, 85 acres are dryland farm ground and 85 acres are irrigated crop ground. We have a combination commercial cow-calf/yearling operation. In the fall of 2005, we began leasing the ranch. In 2006 the irrigated acres were planted to perennial grass/legume pasture. Grazing on the irrigated grass pasture began in 2007. Sixty-six of the dryland farm ground acres are currently in alfalfa and the other nineteen are used for annual forage production.
When we began leasing this ranch in 2005, there had been a prolonged drought in the southern Nebraska panhandle which began in 2000. There had been a history of overgrazing of rangeland on the ranch and tillage practices on the farm ground that had resulted in a loss of top soil. In 2006, we worked with the owner of the ranch to develop an EQIP contract to establish perennial grass pasture on the irrigated farm ground to stop the erosion which had taken place and begin to rebuild the soil. A deferred rotation grazing program is used in combination with the irrigated pasture to seek to restore plant vigor and diversity to the native rangeland. We are now in our third year of leasing this ranch and are slowly beginning to see positive changes due to management practices.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
In the High Plains Region, 75-80% of annual precipitation comes from April through September. This precipitation seasonality allows forage crops windrowed in early fall to keep in the windrow through the winter with minimal deterioration. Grazing the windrows with cattle has the potential to greatly reduce harvesting and feeding costs when compared to baling and feeding hay.
The cost of harvesting forage as baled hay continues to increase as equipment and fuel prices increase. Windrow grazing significantly reduces equipment and fossil fuels needed to harvest forages for hay since the only mechanical operation involved with harvesting is the swathing of the crop. Harvesting the crop as baled hay includes swathing, baling, hauling bales off the field and hauling the bales to the livestock. It is estimated that windrow grazing saves approximately $25.00-$30.00 per ton on an “as fed” basis when compared to feeding baled hay. Windrow grazing decreases fertilizer needs for subsequent crops by returning organic matter and nutrients to the ground where the crop was grown in the form of urine and manure. These attributes also help to meet the goal of improving environmental quality and the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. Finally, farmers and ranchers using windrow grazing have reported a quality of life improvement by reducing the equipment, labor and time associated with harvesting and feeding hay to livestock.
Currently, very few producers in this region windrow graze annual forages. Most annual forages are harvested as hay. By planting annual forage, windrowing the forage and grazing it through the fall and winter, we hoped to learn about the potential of doing this on a large scale.
A 13-acre field was planted to a brown mid rib (BMR) variety of Sudan Grass in June of 2007. The prior year the field had been planted to wheat and due to drought failed to make a crop. The volunteer wheat stubble was lightly disked and drilled with Brown Mid Rib (BMR) Sorghum X sudan grass at a rate of 20 lbs. of seed per acre.
Much of the seed sprouted, however the stand was very thin and uneven as unusually hot and dry conditions in July and early August prevented much growth from occurring. Approximately two inches of rain were received from mid August through early September. In early September, the BMR Sorghum X sudan was only approximately 24 inches in height. A decision was made at this time not to cut the forage into windrows, but to leave it standing as cover and to catch snow in hopes that the field could be planted to BMR Sorghum X sudan grass again in 2008 and try the project again.
In March of 2008, the 13 acre field was fertilized with 40 pounds of nitrogen and 25 pounds of phosphorus per acre. In early June of 2008, the 13 acre field was disked and BMR sorghum X sudan was planted at a rate of 20 pounds per acre. Unfortunately again very dry conditions from mid June to late July prevented establishment and growth of the crop. The sorghum x sudan did show good drought tolerance through this six week period and August rains did result in some growth but not enough for grazing. The decision was made to leave the crop standing for cover and try again in 2009.
Even though we were not successful with this practice ourselves, I am now aware of a number of producers in the area who are windrow grazing annual forages or leaving annual forages standing for grazing with cattle through the winter.
The first goal was to see if BMR sorghum x sudan grass hybrid could be used as a forage crop for windrow grazing in the fall and winter in the southern Nebraska Panhandle.
The second goal was to identify if it was possible to reduce harvesting and feeding costs of hay during the winter through the use of windrow grazing.
The third goal was to reduce fertilizer needed on ground used to grow forage by returning the majority of the nutrients harvested from the crop back on to the ground where it was grown through the use of windrow grazing with cattle.
In the High Plains Region, 75-80% of annual precipitation comes from April through September. This precipitation seasonality allows forage crops windrowed in early fall to keep in the windrow through the winter with minimal deterioration. I believe based on research and producer experience in this region that grazing the windrows with cattle has the potential to greatly reduce harvesting and feeding costs when compared to baling and feeding hay.
BMR Sorghum x Sudan is a drought tolerant crop that has performed well in research trials in terms of quality and tonnage produced per acre when compared to other summer annual forages in this region. The BMR variety was chosen because it has been shown to produce forage that is of higher quality in terms of digestibility than non BMR varieties. Planting this crop in June and then windrowing in early September appeared to be a good way to capture summer moisture and have a crop ready for harvest at the time of the year when it would be likely to keep well in a windrow.
Windrow grazing also has the potential to significantly reduce harvesting and feeding costs as the only cost involved with harvesting is to windrow the crop. Eliminating baling as well as hauling and stacking of bales would save significant harvesting expense. In addition, grazing the forage on the field returns most of the nutrients in the crop back onto the field in the form of manure and urine which should reduce fertilizer needs for subsequent crops when compared to hauling the feed off the field.
I consulted with Joe Larson and Kristen Miller who are on staff locally with the NRCS office to get their ideas on how this project might work in this area.
Unfortunately, because of abnormally dry conditions in June and July of 2007 and 2008, we were not able to grow enough sorghum x sudan to justify windrowing the crop and grazing it. Obviously in this region of the country were we have an average annual precipitation of near 15 inches, timely precipitation is critical for this to work. When planning this project, I didn’t anticipate having two years of extremely dry conditions in June and July.
In the future, I would like to try using herbicide for weed control in early spring and no-till drill the sorghum x sudan into a stubble condition where there was adequate moisture in the soil profile. We didn’t have access to the no-till equipment to do this in 2007 and 2008.
The first major thing I learned from this grant is that what may work well and be feasible in some years in this environment with marginal precipitation may not work well in other years. I still believe that windrow grazing can work well in this environment and plan to try it again in the future. I do believe that minimizing expense in getting an annual forage crop established has to be seriously considered when considering windrow grazing. BMR sorghum x sudan seed is one of the more expensive summer annual forages we can grow in this region. Foxtail millet and some varieties of proso millet would have significantly lower seed costs.
Windrow grazing is currently being used quite a bit in Canada for wintering cows. I believe the practice has real potential for this region as well and could significantly reduce harvesting and feeding costs by $25 to $30 per ton as compared to feeding baled hay. This method of feeding also improves nutrient recycling and would reduce fertilizer requirements over time as manure and urine would be returned to the field where the forage was grown.
As an Extension Educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, I have had the opportunity to share my experience with clients that I work with in the Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming. Unfortunately because we did not actually windrow or graze the crop, we did not have any field days for the project to show what could be done. Based on other research that has been done in Nebraska and surround states, I have written a NebGuide titled Windrow Grazing (http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/g1616/build/g1616.pdf) with Dr. Jerry Volesky that is available as a resource for producers who are considering trying this.
I thought the program was good and gives farmers and ranchers the incentive and some funding to try something that may not otherwise occur. It has also been my experience in working with farmers and ranchers that they are much more likely to try something if they have seen another farmer or rancher implement it.