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Economic Benefits of Managed Grazing Systems

26 June 2012

The main goal for any livestock operation is to turn a profit. Despite the currently high cattle prices, this can still be a challenging goal for many in the beef cow/calf business, particularly with the rising costs of inputs, writes Jeff Duchene, Central Minnesota Regional Grazing Specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The following provides some perspectives on management practices that livestock producers can utilize to improve their forage production and management, which can improve the profitability of an operation. Improvements to the operation need to start with the forages because they are the base of the beef cow’s diet. Also, livestock producers need to be able to make the most efficient and sustainable use of the land that they currently control due to the high cost of acquiring more land.

Let’s have a look at the pasture. Every livestock producer needs to ask the following question: Is my pasture producing at its optimum potential? Not sure how to answer this question? I will give you a hint. If you have not implemented a managed rotational grazing system on your pastureland, you are not realizing the production potential that your pasture could produce. To allow forages to produce at their potential, grazing management practices need to be utilized that benefit the forages.

Pasture management really boils down to managing the plants that are growing in your pastures. To properly manage these plants, livestock producers must first have a basic knowledge of the mechanics of plant growth. In a nutshell, the grasses and legumes commonly found in our pastures rely on a couple of items to be productive: (1) leaf area before and after grazing and (2) rest between grazing events. Most pasture plants rely heavily upon leaf area for quick growth and re-growth. The leaves of a grass plant are responsible for capturing sunlight, which the plant will convert to energy (along with moisture and nutrients that the root system uptakes from the soil) into plant growth. Without adequate leaf area, pasture growth may be slow due to a lack of photosynthetic material (leaves). This results in lost production for the livestock producer. To allow for adequate leaf area for quick re-growth potential, a minimum of 4 inches of stubble height should be maintained in the pastures after they have been grazed. Rest is another critical component to ensure adequate plant recovery. Rest periods typically range between 25-45+ days, depending upon the time of year, moisture availability, and current growing conditions. Adequate rest is needed to allow the plant to re-grow adequate leaf mass and for the root system to recover. With the combination of leaf area and rest, plants can make the most efficient use of sunlight, moisture, and nutrients, which are the other main catalysts for plant growth.

How can you properly manage your forages in the pasture? A managed rotational grazing system needs to be implemented which subdivides the pasture into smaller paddocks. Management also needs to be applied that will maintain adequate leaf area for capturing sunlight and provide sufficient rest between grazing events for the plants in the pasture to recover. When proper management has occurred, several benefits may be realized. These benefits include improved plant health, soil health, water infiltration, and forage production. Other benefits include reduced runoff, soil erosion, and lower cost of production resulting from less use of fuel, machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides.

What does all of this have to do with improving the economic outlook of a beef operation? Everything. Improving forage production can directly impact the profit of an operation. This may come through the ability to increase stocking rate or simply by grazing more days of the year. The highest cost in a livestock operation is feeding the animal during the winter months and during times of pasture shortage. If the animals can spend more days on pasture grazing in a managed system than grazing on unmanaged pasture, the cost of production will almost certainly be lower, thus improving the profit margin of the operation. To provide evidence for this last statement, the University of Missouri conducted a research project in the early-mid 1990’s looking at the economic benefit of rotational grazing systems utilizing beef cow/calves and stockers. The project compared 3, 12, and 24 pasture rotational grazing systems. They found that the 24 paddock rotation returned the highest amount of gain per acre in the calves and steers, and had the highest net income, which was over $30 per acre higher than the 3 paddock rotation (Moore and Gerrish, 2003). This is after factoring in all of the costs of animal management and added costs for the fencing and watering systems. With the current cattle prices, the profit margin may be even larger.

Here is another question livestock producers need to consider: How many days of grazing does my herd average in a year? Feeding constitutes the highest production costs in a beef cow/calf operation. So, the more days that animals can harvest their own forage, the lower the production costs of the operation will be. Another goal of every beef cow/calf operation should be to extend the grazing season for as long as practicable to help reduce these over winter feeding costs. Just because the pasture is dormant, does not mean that it can’t be grazed. A word of caution: you can still overgraze a dormant plant, so stubble heights and good forage management principles need to be maintained over the winter.

How can I further extend my grazing season? First off, be sure that the pasture is being managed in a rotational grazing system. If you have already made that step, other methods exist to extend the grazing season. One method is to stockpile existing pasture for fall/winter use. This involves resting an area of the pasture during the growing season to allow adequate accumulation of forage for fall/winter grazing. These pastures would then be grazed after they are dormant in the fall. Depending upon the state of the forage and the nutrient needs of the animal, some supplement may be needed, but oftentimes a little supplement is still cheaper than feeding a full ration of stored feed.

Crop residues are an excellent source of pasture that is often overlooked. Corn stalks, wheat stubble, even soybeans can provide low cost roughage for beef cattle during the late fall and winter. These feed sources were paid for by the grain crop, so the only cost to grazing these is the fence and water. In many cases, these costs are often far lower over time than the cost of feeding stored feeds. To potentially add more value to these crop stubbles, cover crops could be seeded after harvest. Some common cover crops include rye-grasses, turnips, clovers, and many others. This works particularly well on wheat stubble and fields that were harvested early for corn silage. Cover crops not only provide fodder for livestock, but also soil nutrient and quality benefits.

Another crop that can provide valuable pasture is hay fields. Rather than taking the last cutting of hay off of all the fields, leave some or all of them standing for late fall/winter pasture. If you are planning on feeding the hay right back to the animal anyway, why not let them harvest the feed without your cost of harvesting and feeding it back to them?

Winter feeding methods also improve the profitability and management of an operation. Producers should strongly consider feeding on pasture as part of a fertility management program. Move feeding areas every time animals are fed to evenly spread manure and old feed across a pasture. The manure and old feed being deposited on the paddock will help provide fertility for the coming growing seasons. Rotate the winter feeding area to a new paddock or paddocks every year to help improve the fertility on the entire pasture system. Be mindful of sensitive areas, such as wetlands, streams, woodlands, etc. Don’t feed in or next to these features to reduce the risk of runoff. The winter feeding areas may need extended rest the next growing season, but oftentimes recover naturally. Large buildups of old feed and manure may need to be drug out in the spring, however. The main benefits to using this type of wintering program is that it can replace or significantly reduce the amount of fertilizer needed on the pasture and reduces the cost of hauling manure in the spring. The animals need to be fed, no matter where you do it, so feeding right where you want the manure takes the hauling cost out of the operation. A couple of quick points with wintering on pasture: livestock can travel farther for water in the winter, so don’t let this be a barrier to feeding away from the farmstead. Also, wind protection may be needed on the extreme cold and windy days. So, you may need alternative feeding areas near wind protection during those times.

The bottom line when raising beef cattle is to treat the whole farm as a pasture resource. Also, pay attention to the cost of your inputs. Most beef producers don’t have a lot of control over the price they get for their animals; however, they do have control over the inputs into the operation. Watching the costs of inputs and how those inputs relate to animal performance (profit) can improve the economics of the operation. Remember, improving profit starts with improving what the animals should be relying on for feed, the pasture.

June 2012

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