Reasons to stockpile tall fescue this year

There are a lot of pressures on profitability right now. I have been doing a deep dive into hay production this year, trying to get a handle on the complexity, the science, and the art of making good hay. What does this have to do with stockpiling tall fescue? Hay supplies and fall grazing are dynamically linked – the more grazing we can do in the late fall and early winter, the longer our hay supplies will last. And with the fires and drought in the west as well as untimely rains here, it may be a tight year for some types of hay. Here are several reasons why this might be the year for stockpiling tall fescue.

Longer grazing season. Stockpiling is producing forage now for use later. Using fall stockpiled forages is a great way to extend the grazing season into early winter and reduce the reliance on hay or supplements. Nitrogen fertilizer applied in August/early September will produce more yield per pound of nitrogen than later September or October applications.

Tall fescue is the ideal grass for stockpiling. Stockpiling is growing forage now for use later. Tall fescue is the ideal grass for fall stockpiling because it retains its quality and digestibility into late fall and early winter better than other grasses and legumes. Freezes and rain quickly degrade the quality of legumes and other cool-season grasses. Tall fescue on the other hand will maintain leaf integrity through freezes and weather and therefore the forage quality will remain high.

Good stockpiled tall fescue is an excellent forage for fall weaned calves as well as for the fall calving cow herd. Quality values for fall tall fescue can approach 20 percent crude protein and mid-60s in total digestible nutrients. These values are far superior to most fescue hay. Protein content and digestibility decline at a slower rate over the winter compared to other forages.

Fescue toxicity from the endophyte tends to be low in fall stockpiled tall fescue. Although fescue toxicity can peak in the early fall, freezes will generally cause the toxic alkaloid levels to fall to near zero. Endophyte-free and novel endophyte tall fescues stockpile equally well as KY 31 and will not have toxicity potential at all. Use moderate levels of nitrogen fertilizer (use 60 or less pounds of actual nitrogen per acre, equivalent to 130 pounds of urea that are 46% nitrogen) to avoid the overproduction of the endophyte toxic alkaloids in the fall.

Pastures are in good shape to respond well to nitrogen. . Many areas have received enough rainfall to have excess pasture acres that will be perfect for stockpiling. Pastures that have not been overgrazed will respond most to fall nitrogen fertilizer. For best results, stockpiling should begin by mid-August. If excessive growth is present, mow or graze the fescue down to four to six inches to allow for new growth. Remove grazing livestock and find a good opportunity to apply nitrogen. Fall applied nitrogen is most efficient in producing additional yield when applied in late summer/early fall, as early as mid-August.

Avoid nitrogen loss by timing or adding urease inhibitors. Urea-based products are the most common sources of nitrogen for fall stockpiling. Urea applied to dry soil during hot conditions is subject to nitrogen loss due to urease activity in the soil. Urease is an enzyme that breaks urea down before it can be used by the plant. Urease is widespread in the environment. We can avoid this nitrogen loss by application in advance of a coming rain event or using urea that’s been treated with a urease inhibitor. Consult soil test values to determine if lime, P or K is needed. It is important to take current prices and individual situations into consideration when deciding if this practice will be cost-effective.

Strip allocation of stockpiled tall fescue will extend the grazing period. Missouri research showed that giving cattle a three-day vs seven-day supply of stockpiled tall fescue increased grazing days by 45% due to less trampling and less manure on fresh forage.  Stockpiled fescue can be grazed close with little effect on spring regrowth so utilization efficiency is high. In fact, tightly grazed stockpiled tall fescue pastures can be a good place to frost-seed clover in late winter. For more information on stockpiling tall fescue, see ‘Stockpiling for fall and winter pasture’ (




Many cattle producers can take advantage of the late summer-fall growing conditions to obtain high-quality pasture

for fall and early winter grazing. This practice is called stock-piling. Management decisions for optimum stockpiling include selecting grass species, timing, fertilizing, grazing management or utilization, selecting classes of cattle, and designing grazing systems for efficient utilization.

Grasses to Stockpile

The best grass for stockpiling is cool-season grass that will retain its green color and forage quality later into winter. In addition, the grass should be somewhat resistant to low temperatures and have the capabilities of forming a good sod. Kentucky has two adapted types of grass that have these characteristics: tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. Tall fescue produces more fall and winter growth than bluegrass (Table 1).


Table 1. Yield and crude protein content of Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue were produced from Aug. 15 to Dec. 1 under different levels of N fertilization at Lexington (average of three years).

Fertilizer Needed

A soil test should be taken to determine the phosphorus, potassium, and lime necessary. Nitrogen should be topdressed at the rate of 40 to 60 pounds of actual N per acre on bluegrass and 40 to 100 pounds on tall fescue. When N was applied on August 15 and yields were taken in December, Kentucky researchers have shown that bluegrass fertilized with 45 pounds of nitrogen per acre had a yield increase of 20 pounds of dry matter for each pound of nitrogen applied. In the same study, tall fescue showed an even greater nitrogen use efficiency with 24.4 pounds of dry matter produced for each pound of nitrogen applied. Additional studies have shown that the greatest yield increases occur when N application occurs soon after August 1 (Table 2). Nitrogen applications before August 1 may encourage the growth of summer grasses such as crabgrass and foxtail and subsequently reduce the production of bluegrass and tall fescue. The Source of nitrogen will also influence N use efficiency with urea 79 to 89% as effective as ammonium nitrate on an equivalent nitrogen basis (Table 3).


Applied lb/acre Yield lb/acre %


Yield lb/acre %


0 700 12.8 1700 11.1
45 1600 15.5 2800 11.8
90 2100 19.1 3900 14.8




             Bluegrass                            Fescue             

Table 2. Effect of time of nitrogen application on production efficiency of KY 31 tall fescue.  


Date N          Nitrogen Efficiency



Source: Taylor, T.H., and Templeton Jr., W.C. 1976. Agron. J. Vol. 68, Mar-Apr.


Time to Begin Stockpiling

Late July-early August is the time to begin stockpiling for fall and winter use. Remove cattle in late July or early August, apply necessary fertilizer, and allow the grass to accumulate growth until November or December. Make sure that summer growth has been removed to 3 to 4 inches by grazing or clipping so that stockpile production comes from new grass regrowth.

During the stockpiling period, August 1 to November 1, other available forages such as sorghum-Sudan hybrids, sudangrass, bermudagrass, grass-lespedeza, and grass-clover should be used. After frost, alfalfa-grass and clover-grass growth should be grazed first before moving to grass fields.

       Applied        lb DM*/lb N added

Aug 1                  27.2

Aug 15                 25.8

Sep 1                  19.2

       Oct 1                   10.8          

*Dry matter.

Source: Murdock, Lloyd W. 1982. Agronomy Notes. Vol. 15, No. 2, April 1982.



Table 3. Pounds of tall fescue 10 weeks after N application.             

                                  lb/acre %                                 

Application Date  


Ammonium Nitrate  




Early August 786 1683 1406 84
Mid-August 741 1438 1287 89
September 372 1076 852 79

*Efficiency of urea compared to ammonium nitrate.

Source: University of Kentucky.









These studies show that with wise use and timing of fertilizer, high production can be obtained during fall and early winter. The sugar content and digestibility of tall fescue are also better during fall-early winter than any other time of the year. This increased quality in the fall has been shown in many studies including the data in Table 4 from the University of Kentucky.


Table 4. Seasonal percentage changes in chemical composition and digestibility of tall fescue.    

                          Spring        Summer          Fall      


Sugars 9.5 8.5 19
Protein 22 18 19

D.D.M.*            69             66             74      

*Digestible dry matter.

Source: Buckner, R.C. 1975. Univ. of Ky. Coop. Ext. AGR-44.


Utilization of Stockpiled Forages

After frost, be sure to graze the grass-legume fields quickly before the plants deteriorate. After these fields are grazed, the stockpiled grass field or fields should be grazed. Light stocking will cause a lot of waste as a result of trampling. To make the most efficient use of the high-quality feed in stockpiled fields, install a temporary electric fence across the field dividing it so the area to be grazed first has a source of water and minerals. Once the animals have grazed this area off, move the fence back, opening up a new strip. Repeat this system until the entire field is grazed.

What Classes of Cattle Benefit the Most From Stockpiled Grasses?

Stockpiled grass is an excellent choice for fall-calving cows. It can be used after calving and during the breeding season when their nutritional needs are greatest.

Spring-calving cows may benefit most from grazing stock-piled grasses if they are in thin body condition in the fall. They can regain condition while grazing and be in better shape going into the winter. Spring-calvers in mid-gestation that are in good body condition may not need as high a quality of feed and could use lower-quality feed. Over-conditioning cows in late gestation may increase the birthweight of their calves.

Growing, weaned cattle can also be grazed on stockpiled fescue. Backgrounders can lower the feed costs of their operations by utilizing stockpiled grasses.

Animal Performance on Stockpiled Tall Fescue

The high quality of stockpiled tall fescue (Figure 1) produces good gains on both weaned stock and mature cows. These gains are a response to the high crude protein and digestibility of the fall growth of tall fescue. In particular, the sugar content rises to very high levels in response to lower temperatures and shortening day length. This nutritional change does not take place overnight due to the first frost but is spread over time.

Figure 1. Quality of stockpiled fescue versus hay on nine Arkansas farms.














Oct.       Nov.       Dec.       Jan.        Feb.        Mar.

* Total digestible nutrients.

** Crude protein.

Source: University of Missouri.



Calf Gains

Several factors affect the gain of calves grazing fall stockpiled tall fescue, including the endophyte status of the fescue and the length of the grazing period. The presence of the fescue endophyte will decrease gain (Table 5) even with the cooler temperatures of fall. Calves grazing endophyte-infected stockpiled fescue gained 1.49 pounds daily in a Kentucky trial and 1.85 pounds in an Oklahoma trial (Table 5). Calves on endophyte-free tall fescue in the same trials gained 2.17 lb/day in Kentucky (45% increase) and 2.47 lb/day in Oklahoma (34% increase). In comparison, clover mixed with endophyte-infected tall fescue increased gains by only 9% in Oklahoma. In other studies where calves were grazed from early November to mid-December on endophyte-infected stockpiled tall fescue, gains ranged from 0.97 to 2.13 lb per day (Table 6). In conclusion, calf gains are higher when grazing endophyte-free tall fescue, but the detrimental effect of endophyte-infected tall fescue is much lower with late fall grazing in comparison to summer grazing.


Table 5. The effect of the endophyte on calf average daily gain (ADG) when

grazing stockpiled tall fescue.                

               ADG, lb              Endophyte             Kentucky, Oklahoma, Level                                        1986                 1986     

E+                      1.49           1.85

E-                       2.17           2.47

E+ and Clover          —             2.02     


Table 6. Average daily gain (ADG) of calves grazing stockpiled tall fescue.        


Trial               Days      ADG, lb

KY, 1982          59         1.27

KY, 1985          57         1.15

KY, 1986          56         2.00

OK, 1986        42         2.13

KY, 1990          63         0.97

IL, 1992          56         1.76   

Table 7. Performance of dry, pregnant cows* grazing stockpiled tall fescue (four-year average).                    Grazing dates                                  11/6 to 2/10

Average daily gain                              1.24 pounds

Stockpiling rate                                 1.33 cows per acre

Gain per cow                                     119 pounds

Hay fed per cow (11/6 to 2/10)                564

* Mature Angus cows bred to calve in March.

Source: Bradley, Neil, et al. 1984 Beef Cattle Research Report, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Progress Report 282, pp. 11-12.


Cow Gains

Another area where stockpiled tall fescue is helpful to the livestock producer is by extending the grazing season for the cow herd, thereby decreasing the need for stored feed. Studies have also shown that grazing stockpiled tall fescue can reduce labor requirements up to 25% of that for conventional hay feeding. University of Kentucky researchers found stockpiled tall fescue produced 66 days of grazing per acre for dry, mature Angus beef cows and allowed the cows to gain 1.24 pounds per day. In the same study, hay requirements were only 564 pounds per cow during the period November 6 to February 10 (Table 7). Missouri data (Table 8) showed a reduction in wintering cost of $100.00 per cow.


Table 8. Wintering cost per cow. Winter feeding period from Dec.

1 to Apr. 10.                                                                    

Stockpiled Ryegrass + Forage Source   Hay        Cornstalks Tall Fescue     Cereal Rye

$/cow/day        $1.32        $0.05          $0.31           $0.61 Days of use           130 hay  60 stalks 90 graze 90 graze

70 hay         40 hay         40 hay Wintering cost       $172      $122                  $70                    $108                       Source: Gerrish, J. et al., University of Missouri.



In summary, stockpiling of adapted cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and bluegrass extends the grazing season, reduces winter hay feeding, provides a good return of high-quality forage for each pound of nitrogen fertilizer applied (providing other nutrients are not lacking and the nitrogen is applied early), and provides the beef cow herd an ideal place for wintering and calving.