Chris Prevatt, UF/IFAS Livestock Economist, Jose Dubeux, Joao Vendramini, and Marcelo Wallau, UF/IFAS Forage Specialists

Producers throughout the Southeast feed hay and other stored feedstuffs during the fall, winter, and early spring due to limited forage availability and lower forage quality provided by warm-season perennial pastures. Feeding during this time period could last for 90 to 180 days, based on individual management programs, resources, and weather conditions.

Winter feed costs are one of the largest expenses for most cattle producers. Thus, alternative winter-feeding programs need to be evaluated to reduce the costs while meeting the nutritional needs of cattle. Grazing cool-season annual forages is one of those alternatives that may provide producers with a cost-effective way to reduce hay, supplement, and stored feed costs while potentially extending the grazing season by three or more months.

Replacement heifers on cool-season forages at the North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC), Marianna – FL. Photo credit:  Jose Dubeux, UF/IFAS

Cool-season annual forages can be an important part of forage production systems as they allow dormant warm-season perennial pastures to be utilized. These acres would normally be unproductive during the winter months, but can become productive acres during the winter and early spring months when cool-season annual forages are utilized. Although these forages are costly to establish, ($125-$300/acre depending on planting method and fertilization) they are high in total digestible nutrients (TDN) and crude protein (CP). The high nutritive value of cool-season annual forages can provide cattle producers with a lower cost option for supplementing their herd’s nutritional needs.

The cost of establishment, amount of forage production, and level of forage utilization are three important factors in determining the economics of planting and grazing cool-season annual forages. Producer results for these three key variables can vary greatly across the Southeastern United States. Table 1 provides an analysis of cool-season annual forage cost per dry matter ton consumed ($/DM ton) for various levels of forage production and production cost per acre.

Table 1 Cool-season forage cost of production

The first column in Table 1 describes the level of cool-season annual forage production per acre (DM lbs./acre) and ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 dry matter pounds per acre. Forage utilization or consumption of forage, as shown in the second column, was assumed to be 50 percent of the total available forage production. Forage utilization in Table 1 ranges from 1,500 to 5,000 dry matter pounds per acre. The data in columns three through ten represent the total cost of growing and grazing cool-season annual forages per dry matter ton consumed. As described in the interior of Table 1, the total cost of growing and grazing ranged from $50 to $400 per dry matter ton consumed.

A comparable quality ration (soyhulls, dried distiller’s grains, and bermudagrass hay) was purchased, mixed, stored, and fed (adjusted for waste) for $185 per dry ton consumed to help producers determine under what levels of forage production, forage utilization, and production cost per acre would growing and grazing cool-season annual forages reduce their winter-feeding costs. The highlighted areas in Table 2 show the possible combinations of forage production, forage utilization, and production costs per acre that have a lower cool-season annual forage growing and grazing cost per dry matter ton consumed than for what a comparable quality feedstuff could be consumed. The analysis in Table 2 illustrates that producers have numerous alternatives to economically grow and graze cool-season annual forages. Each producer must determine what values are attainable for their operation.

Cool-season forage cost analysis

Table 3 provides a detailed view of the variables and equations used to determine the total cost of growing and grazing cool-season annual forages per dry matter ton consumed. A forage production level of 6,000 DM lbs./acre, forage utilization of 50%, and a cool-season annual forage production cost of $175/acre results in a total cost of growing and grazing cool-season annual forages of $117/DM ton consumed.

 DM Cost per ton of cool-season annuals

The level of forage and feed utilization is a very important, and often over-looked variable when determining the economics of winter-feeding systems. Utilization measures the amount of forage or feed consumed by the cattle. This provides us with the information to adjust for waste and calculate the total cost of using each feedstuff. Regardless of the feedstuff used (cool-season annual forages, hay, stockpiled forage, by-product commodities, liquid supplement, etc.), cost should be evaluated based on the amount utilized or consumed, not the purchase price or the cost of production for raised feedstuffs. Producers should include all the costs associated with feedstuffs (cost to raise or purchase, transport, store, feed, waste, etc.). Producers can use the information available in Tables 1, 2, and 3 to compare with the total cost of other feedstuffs. If you add up all of the actual expenses, you may be surprised by how much winter feeding really costs per dry matter ton consumed.

Basic cowboy economics tells us that it’s cheaper and easier to let the cows harvest forage than to buy, store, and feed it to the herd. However, the economics of cool-season annual forages will depend on an individual’s specific situation and weather conditions. For producers that can control their forage production costs, while attaining adequate levels of forage production and utilization, cool-season annual forages are a viable low-cost option. Good luck with your winter grazing and feeding programs, and may you be blessed with good moisture this winter.