Plan to add value to your pasture


What is the cost of hay? I’ve been following the local hay auction prices reported in the Farm and Dairy each week.

Hay prices have consistently been in the $250 to $450 per ton range since late summer of 2012. Occasionally you might see a price around $200 per ton, but it looks like $300 to $350 per ton is common.

A big question is what is the forage price outlook for 2013? At our Agriculture Outlook meeting here in Wooster in the later part of January, Matt Roberts from the Ohio State University Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics provided a grain crop situation outlook for 2013.

Looking ahead

While Matt did not directly address the topic of forage prices in 2013 he did provide figures that showed projected planting estimates for 2013 corn and soybean acreage increasing about 8 million acres above 2012 planting figures. Then he asked the question; “Where are those increased acres coming from?”

He does not believe that there is that much CRP land available or that it will be used to meet the additional acres. Matt thinks that hay and pasture land will be going into row crop production.

If that is true then hay/haylage/baleage prices may remain high in 2013. The point is: forage is not an inexpensive feed source and this includes pasture forage. Graziers need to recognize the value of the pasture resource and manage pastures to add value to the forage produced.

How do you add value to your pasture? One way is to increase the utilization. In a continuous pasture situation where there is only one big pasture, the utilization is low. In our “Pasture for Profit” grazing schools, we say that only about 30 percent of the pasture production is utilized.

Utilization can be increased by breaking the large pasture into several smaller paddocks and rotating livestock through the paddocks. Under a system where livestock are moved to a different paddock on a weekly basis, utilization can increase to 50 percent or more.

Forage utilization

If livestock are moved to a new paddock every three days, utilization might increase to 65 percent or more. Smaller paddocks, and more frequent livestock moves give better forage utilization.

The reason is because livestock can do less selection and there is less waste of pasture forage. Getting better forage utilization from your pasture when the hay price is high is a good management decision. It involves using fence to create more pasture divisions and making sure that livestock have access to water in those new divisions.

Another way to add value to pasture forage is to reduce some variable costs associated with pasture. Two costs that can be reduced by increasing the amount of pasture divisions are clipping and purchased fertilizer. As pasture divisions increase, essentially the grazier is putting more animals on a smaller area for a limited time.

In the early ’90s there was research done at the Forage Systems Research Center in Missouri to attempt to quantify some of the benefits associated with increasing paddock number or pasture divisions with a given pasture acreage. One of those benefits was reduced clipping expense.

Clipping was not totally eliminated, but it was significantly reduced. The research results showed that increasing paddock number from three paddocks to 12 paddocks decreased clipping expense by 83 percent.Our OSU Extension 2012 custom rates publication does not have a line item for clipping pastures but does have an average cost for bush hogging at $21.50 per acre. The 2012 Kentucky custom rate publication does have a specific pasture clipping category listed at an average of $14 per acre.

Either way, the pasture production cost associated with clipping can potentially be reduced as pasture management increases.Livestock on pasture can recycle approximately 80 percent of the nutrients they take in from consuming the pasture forage. However, when paddocks are large and stocking density is low, those nutrients get moved around and transferred.

Differing levels

Pastures can have areas where nutrients are concentrated at high levels and other areas that have low and deficient nutrient levels.

To maintain pasture productivity, purchased fertilizer should be applied to those low areas. More uniform manure distribution can result in less need for purchased fertilizer by minimizing those areas of low pasture nutrient levels.

Some pasture management researchers in Missouri examined manure distribution under different rotational management systems.

They wanted to know how many years it would take to get one manure pile on every square yard of the pasture. They found that it would take 27 years for this to happen under a continuous (one large pasture) rotation, eight years under a 14-day rotation, four to five years under a four-day rotation and two years under a two-day rotation.

When purchased forage costs are high, application of pasture management knowledge pays premiums. At a recent Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council conference, Bob Hendershot, renowned grazing specialist, was asked about the average pasture production in Ohio. Bob said it is 2.3 tons of dry matter (DM) per acre. Jeff McCutcheon, Extension educator in Morrow County, has coordinated and run a pasture measurement project in Ohio for the past seven years.

Graziers from around the state measure pasture growth on a weekly basis from mid-April through mid-September and send the results to Jeff. These are folks who have divided up pastures and are using rotational grazing. The seven-year average (including this past drought year) across all graziers using all kinds of rotation systems and with all kinds of pasture conditions is 4.6 tons/acre.

Pasture is a valuable forage resource. Like any resource, it responds to management. What is your plan to add value to your pasture in 2013?

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