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Next Year’s Forage Plan Starts Now

By Brandon Mitchell

Dairy goats are ruminants, meaning that they have four stomachs through which their food passes in the process of digestion. In order for them to be happy, healthy and productive, dairy goats must have something to ruminate on. Roughages such as hay, pasture, fresh forage, silage or browse, provide this important aspect of production and profitabilty. These roughages, also called forage, should be the base of every ration, and it is at this base that the success of any farm can be determined. There’s nothing more important in the economics of raising dairy goats than controlling or eliminating feed costs. Feed costs account for the majority of livestock expenses each year, and a 50% reduction (an attainable goal) in those costs greatly increases profit margins.

The first step to increasing forage capacity, grazing efficiency, and all those other "ees" actually has nothing to do with forages at all, at least not directly. Cross-fencing (also known as rotational grazing) is the most overlooked and underutilized tool to decrease the cost of purchased feeds. It’s been said that cattle trample five times as much forage as they consume. I would suspect it’s not that high with smaller, lighter livestock like goats and sheep, but it’s still too high. Grass and legumes just don’t grow as well where they’ve been stepped on constantly, especially the legumes. Take for example my yard. I pull my car off the driveway and park on the edge of the yard. When I mow each week, there are almost no legumes where my tires tread (I have lots of white Dutch clover everywhere else), and the grass barely reaches my lawn mower blades. This tells me constant compaction (which isn’t good for the soil either) is counterproductive to growing forages. By cross-fencing fields, foot (aka hoof) traffic can be limited for a specific length of time to allow the grass and legumes to grow unhampered. The decreased compaction is good for water absorption during rainy weather, and parasites die when they don’t have a host around to live in.

Besides damage from hoof traffic, livestock prefer young growth. Whatever species of forage is most desirable is eaten first, then re-eaten, and then eaten once more, all while the less desirable species are uneaten and producing seed heads. This means two things. Less desirable and less nutritious forage species proliferate, and goats are eating the more desirable forages very close to the ground, where parasites thrive.

Cross-fencing eliminates much of that problem. At a minimum, I recommend cutting a pasture into thirds as a start. That way, each paddock has twice as much rest time as grazing time. Later, these areas can be cross-fenced again, turning them into six, nine, 12, or more paddocks. With each successive paddock division, grazing efficiency is increased, but at a diminishing rate. For example, cutting a field into thirds allows one week of grazing and two weeks of rest. Cutting it into six means there is three to four days of grazing and roughly two-and-a-half weeks of rest. This means more efficiency, but as much increase in efficiency as the first pasture breakdown from the perspective of looking at it from rest (or regrowth) days, not ratio of grazing to non-grazing days.

The cost of fencing for the first paddock break provided two weeks’ paddock rest versus none. The cost of fencing the second time around only gave three to four more days paddock rest for roughly the same cost of fencing.

Personally, I prefer a four-pasture paddock break—one week grazing and three weeks resting. That way, the paddock is grazed only once per month and paddock changes are only necessary on Saturdays. If I didn’t have a full time job, I would add more fencing to make paddock moves every one to three days to increase efficiency, but as it stands, a once-a-week move is a good compromise between no labor and bad grazing efficiency, and great grazing efficiency and high labor. No matter what is done, remember good growthy plants have more nutrients and fiber than very young plants, and more nutrients and less fiber than very old plants. By grazing them when they reach the top of the growth curve, and only regrazing them when the plants reach that stage again is the best forage provided for young goats, and best milking production enabled for mature goats.

Another important and relatively easy way to increase forage quality is to add legumes. I’m not talking about renting equipment or disking large expanses of pasture, which costs money and wastes the forage that’s already available. I’m talking about interseeding each fall, winter, or early spring with a small amount of clover or other legumes. A hand seeder is cheap and easy to use.

Frost seeding is a good way to work broadcast seeds into the soil. After a snow, spread seeds on top with a hand spreader. The melting snow gently lowers seeds into a loose seed bed. Legumes are highly digestible. In the spring especially, they are high in energy, and throughout the growing season, they remain higher in protein than most grasses. Higher protein levels are important for growing kids. Legumes also add nitrogen to the soil so grasses will grow as if they had been fertilized.

When planting legumes, or any other forage for that matter, it’s a good idea to know the pH of the soil. Ideally, one should take a soil test, but a soil’s fertility and pH can be guessed at by looking at what’s already growing in the field. If the field is full of broomsedge, commonly called sage grass, one can safely say one of three things: pH is low, soil fertility is low, and/or there is not enough grazing pressure (broomsedge isn’t a very desirable species and therefore picked over in favor of more desirable species). For the manager who is cross-fencing, an increase in grazing pressure can solve that problem. If a field shows growth of sericea lespedeza, but not alfalfa, then the pH and fertility are most likely low. A good resource for anyone below the Mason-Dixon Line is Southern Forages. With excellent pictures, planting times and rates, common plant diseases, and nutritional value of different forage species, this book shows what’s really happening in fields.

Another important aspect of farming is realizing there are four growing seasons, not just two. In my experience, most farmers consider the growing season as spring through fall. They complain about how dry it is in summer with no thought given to warm-season forages, and consider winter a hay feeding time, although there are numerous forages to fill that gap as well. Warm-season annuals and perennials are relatively easy to grow because they’re designed to handle the heat and lack of moisture in the summer. Three things that can hamper their growth are: planting too late (young plants don’t have the root system to dig deep for water in the summer), really wet spring weather (which leads to sickly plants and/or planting late), and competition from cool-season forages (this is where a bed of soil with very little green in sight is needed).

Winter annuals make summer forages an even better option. Just when that Bermuda, millet, lespedeza, or other warm-season forage turns brown, it’s time to seed for winter. If one has a solid stand of summer forages, there is no need to tear it up for winter planting. Just make sure it’s relatively short. Sometimes a light discing helps the seed reach the soil, but it’s not always necessary. If there are cool-season forages like fescue, orchardgrass, or timothy mixed in with warm-season field, make sure they are shorter during planting so they won’t shade out the soon-to-be growing winter annuals. Most winter annuals are grasses. Aside from crimson clover and Austrian winter peas, wheat, oats, rye, and ryegrass make up the majority of grazed winter forages. Except for ryegrass, these are all grain grasses. That is to say, if they were allowed to mature, their seeds would be harvested with a combine in late spring/early summer for grain. Like grains, these are all (including ryegrass) high in energy. They have the ability to put weight on an animal and increase milking at the same time. In the summer, corn and soybeans, when grazed properly, will do much the same.

The farmer who plants any forages, no matter what kind or season, should allow plenty of time for the plants to develop a strong root system before grazing. Some summer forages like corn and soybeans, and many winter annuals (wheat, oats, rye) do not have a good grow back rate, so wait until the plant has produced a good tonnage before grazing. After grazing, do not let the goats back in before the plant has grown back to its pre-eaten state, unless it is late in the growing season (about a month before frost for summer annuals and late spring for winter annuals). And remember, only about 20-25 percent of available land should be put in warm season forages. Warm-season forages produce a lot of tonnage in a short period. Winter annuals should be planted in the same spot when the warm-season forages are gone, so no extra ground is needed for them.

Profitable dairy goat farms, no matter what size, have one thing in common. They keep their costs low, which means starting with a good forage base. Cross-fencing can help eliminate constant pressure on an entire field. Learning about available forages, soil pH and fertility, and additional grasses and legumes to plant will help improve spring and fall forage. Also, an extension of grazing into summer and winter will result in a decrease of feed costs, a decrease in sick and parasite-ridden goats, and an increase in farm profitability.

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