Managed grazing the only way to go

If you have not yet adopted management intensive grazing, you should now. At the end of 2007, I figured I would be spending my winter talking about how to evaluate and renovate pastures after the drought. Boy, was I wrong.
The majority of calls and questions I have received been about feed, specifically the high cost of feed.
After working with several farmers to analyze what they have on hand and various local prices for other feedstuff options, I keep coming up with the same answer. If you have to buy feed, corn is the cheapest feedstuff we have.

Best buy.

Yes, even with corn hitting above the $5-per-bushel price, it is the best buy. That realization has convinced me that for ruminant livestock producers, practicing management intensive grazing is now more important than ever before.
The reasons are: it will help you extend the grazing season; you can run more animals on fewer acres; it will lead to better-quality pastures; and it will help with manure distribution and maintaining pasture fertility.
• Extend the season. Just by properly managing the forage growth during the growing season, producers are extending the grazing season. Let me say that again, by managing the forages better, producers are able to graze longer.
The extension comes at both ends of the growing season. They are turning in earlier in the spring and grazing later in the fall. Some are feeding little to no hay by using annuals, crop residue, and/or stockpiling.
Even after a tough year for managing forages, there are producers that as of Feb. 21, have not had to feed hay.

The basics.

One of first things taught about the business side of farming in my high school vo-ag classes was that profit equaled income minus expenses. Since then, every budget or cost analysis I have seen shows that feed is the biggest cost of producing livestock.
Every day you are meeting your animals’ nutritional needs by grazing, you are feeding them with the least expensive option.
Finding ways to graze them longer will save you money.
• More animals on fewer acres. Land costs are significant. Current trends in agriculture indicate that other commodities are competing for forage acreage, which means land costs are not going down.

Acreage.

“How many acres does it take to keep a cow?” is a question I get two or three times a year.
Let’s run through an example to answer that question.
In Ohio, the average cool-season grass pasture yields 7,000 pounds of dry matter per acre per year. Most beef cows I have seen recently weigh around 1,500 pounds.
Consuming 3 percent of its body weight per day means it needs 16,425 pounds of dry matter per year. So it would take 2.3 acres to feed a cow for the whole year.
Since grass growth is not the same every day of the year, we should consider the 2.3 acres to be both hay and pasture. Does that number seem a little high? Not really.
During various programs, I have asked participants questions about the number of animals, number of acres of pasture and hay they have. Now this was not a scientific sample, but I actually use the responses to get a better idea about the audience.
Looking back at responses given during several programs, the range of responses was between 1 acre and 6 acres of pasture per cow. Add hay to the equation and it changed to between 2 acres and 12 acres of forage per cow.

Forage production.

To reduce the number of acres needed per animal, we could get smaller animals, change the amount they consume or increase the amount of forage produced per acre. The easiest would be to increase the amount of forage produced per acre.
We can do that by keeping the plants vegetative, removing animals before the plants regrow, leaving enough residual forage when we do remove them and allowing the plants to recover before we graze the field again.
Graziers participating in the Pasture Measurement Project have consistently measured yields above the average. Although last year was a below average year for forage growth, several grew more than 7,000 pounds of dry matter per acre.
This was without any added nitrogen fertilizer. It was because they managed their grazing.
• Better quality pastures. Keep the plants vegetative. Remove animals before the plants regrow. Leave enough residual forage when we do remove them. Allow the plants to recover before we graze the field again.

Better feed.

These same practices that produce more forage also provide a better feed for your animals. Those practices also allow desirable plants to compete with undesirable plants.
• More even manure distribution. Fertilizer costs have increased and will continue to increase.
Grazing animals remove only a small percentage of the soil nutrients from the field. Of course, if we have large pastures, the animals will transfer the fertility to areas of shade, water or minerals.
Smaller paddocks in which animals are moved frequently will help keep the fertility near the growing plants.
A study in Missouri showed that in a continuous grazing situation, it would take 27 years to get one manure pile on every square yard of the pasture. A system using paddocks set up for a two-day rotation would take two years to achieve the same result.
Management-intensive grazing can help you extend the grazing season, run more animals on fewer acres, produce better-quality pastures and help maintain pasture fertility.

Key to survival.

In today’s economic environment, getting more out of your pasture acreage may be a key to survival. If you would like to learn more, contact your local Extension office, Natural Resource Conservation Service and/or soil and water conservation district for information about managing grazing.
Several are hosting pastures for profit schools or grazing schools this spring and pasture walks during the growing season. You may also check out the Web page http://forages.osu.edu.
There is a program in late February and March that address the changing economics of ruminant livestock production. It will be held in Fairfield, Knox, Athens and Highland counties.
The two-night program is titled “Ruminant Livestock: Facing New Economic Realities.” Check out the calendar on the Beef Team Web page http://beef.osu.edu for locations and times.

About the Author

Jeff McCutcheon is an Ohio State University Extension, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator in Knox County. More Stories by Jeff McCutcheon

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