Pasture planning is key to profitability


The most effective use of pastures does not just happen. Foresight and planning are necessary.

At the end of January, I taught a session about evaluating hay quality and use of hay in beef cattle rations at a Hocking County beef school.

Farmers had submitted samples of their hay, mostly first cutting, for lab quality analysis before the meeting. At the meeting, we were able to do some physical evaluation of hay samples and then compare that type of judging to lab quality results.

This was interesting, but the real value happened when the lab quality results were used to balance a ration for the nutrient requirements of a late gestation and early lactation cow.

None of the first cutting samples submitted for analysis could meet the nutrient needs of cows in late gestation, and energy was consistently deficient.

Corn, even at its $6.42 per bushel price at the time of the meeting, was a better deal as a supplement to meet energy needs than a protein tub option used by some of the farmers.

After the meeting, Stan Smith, editor of the OSU Extension Beef Cattle Letter, wrote an article summarizing some of these results and included a link to a recorded presentation of the meeting. Here is where this story takes a twist that dedicated graziers might have seen coming.

Reality check: None of the first cutting samples submitted for analysis could meet the nutrient needs of cows in late gestation.

The e-mail

A few days after the beef cattle letter came out, I received an e-mail from an Athens County cattleman that began; “Hey, Rory, I just want to vent a little!” The gist of his message was he thought the meeting placed too much emphasis on the use of hay and supplemental feeding, and not enough about grazing forages.

His language was a little stronger, including statements such as “…just makes me want to cringe!” and “Here is an article about the same old status quo and how to put a Band-Aid on a festering wound and how to continue the welfare program on a bunch of cows that probably don’t deserve it in the first place.”

He ended with “…writing articles condoning the feeding of $6/bu corn is just totally way off in my opinion…”

Earlier in his e-mail message, this cattleman had written his cows were grazing stockpiled grass and that he would feed less than half the hay the average cattle farmer typically fed.

He thought these were the kinds of topics that should be written about to encourage the beef industry as he lamented the declining beef cattle numbers amidst a very good feeder calf market.

The reply

My reply, in part, to this cattleman was; “Very good points, and of course you are right. What Stan didn’t say in his article is that this is a two-night beef school. That first night focused on hay because it seems that beef cattle farmers are interested in making and feeding hay.

“Hopefully the results of their hay tests and the costs associated with feeding poor quality hay have set us up for night two, when I will be talking about grazing/pasture management and economics.

“I think sometimes you have to meet people where they are at and try to shake them up before they will even consider change. It will be pretty clear, I think, anything that can be done to cut winter feed costs such as stockpiling should be the goal if being in business in the long run is a concern. Grazing and pasture management need to become priorities.”

I believe using pasture forages is the basis of ruminant livestock profitability. It is generally about three times more expensive to feed an animal mechanically harvested and stored forage as compared to letting the animal graze the forage.

The most effective and cost efficient pasture use is achieved by application of grazing management. The most effective use of pastures does not just happen. Foresight and planning are necessary.

The cattleman who wrote me the e-mail message was able to graze his cattle on stockpiled forage during the winter because he had made plans and prepared for that situation in the late summer period.

He set aside pasture acreage, he put into place a fence and water system that would allow him to graze his cattle during the winter period.

Planning ahead

Recently, I had a phone conversation with another dedicated grazier who was talking about and planning his summer pasture rotation schedule.

He was planning out scenarios for various weather patterns and attempting to think what kind of spring rotation through his pastures and what kind of clipping schedule would put him in the best situation to deal with the summer slump or even a possible drought condition.

Even though this grazier has sheep and not cattle, the principle is the same. Effective pasture use requires foresight and planning.

I have heard livestock owners say corn covers up a lot of management errors as a way of explaining why they didn’t devote more time or management effort to grazing and pasture utilization.

That was easier to do with corn at $2 a bushel and even at $4 a bushel. At today’s prices of $6 to $7 per bushel corn, effort put into grazing management makes economic sense.

The key point I want to emphasize again is that the pay-off for grazing management comes with planning and looking ahead.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.