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Less hay, more profit

Agriculture.com Staff 01/10/2008 @ 11:25am

Eleven years ago, Larry Gibson went to an Extension meeting to learn how to winter cows a little cheaper on his ranch at Nowata, Oklahoma. The things he learned that day changed his life.

Gibson heard agronomists talk about fertilizing fescue for winter stockpiling and how to strip-graze for better efficiency.

"I came home from that meeting and thought, 'I might give it a try,'" Gibson says. "I'd sold a horse and had some money to buy the fencing supplies, and I had 32 acres right in front of the house I could subdivide.

"I started strip-grazing about November and come March 1, I hadn't fed any hay, and I still had lots of grass left," he says. "I could see the economics in that deal -- fertilize one acre of fescue and keep one cow all winter."

Gibson still buys and keeps a little hay for his cows, but most winters he feeds none. He's never put a dollar value on the near elimination of hay from his ranch, but researchers have put a value on it.

Auburn University research indicates at least a $28-per-cow savings in wintering cost from stockpiling and grazing fescue.

The University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center puts even higher value on the practice for fall-calving cows. It says stockpiled and strip-grazed fescue costs about one third the price of heavy winter haying -- 43 cents per day versus $1.23.

Gibson didn't stop with strip-grazing fescue, however. He could sense the advantages of managed grazing, and he wanted more. He began to subdivide his pastures into paddocks and develop water points for each paddock. He attended classes on management-intensive grazing at Missouri's Linneus forage center, the Noble Foundation at Ardmore, Oklahoma, and the Southwest Center at Mount Vernon, Missouri.

"If you don’t know any more than I did starting out, you've got to get some help," Gibson says. "I was fortunate to learn from the best -- Jim Gerrish, R.L. Dalrymple, and Rick Crawford."

Just as he was getting his entire place into managed grazing, a piece of bad luck turned good, further convincing him he was tracking true. Gibson lost his lease on a 140-acre property where he kept 30 cows. He brought them home, thinking he would sell them soon if he couldn't find more land.

"I wound up not having to sell any of them," he says. Improved management coaxed additional forage from the land he already owned. "It was a real eye-opening event, I'll tell you," he says.

Gibson could push his cattle and forage harder and get even more from them, but that isn't what suits him best. He runs about a cow per 2.3 acres with almost no outside inputs. In a normal year, he allocates about two-thirds of his forage to his cows and one-third to his calves.

He still keeps two cow herds rather than one, even though a single herd would give him faster defoliation and longer recovery periods.

Gibson only has 15 permanent paddocks in his fescue-Bermuda grass cells and three permanent paddocks on the native grass. But he creates additional paddocks, as needed, with temporary fencing.

He shoots for a happy medium on his paddocks: Big enough that the time element is not critical and small enough that the cows don't repeat-graze fresh regrowth from the forage plants they've already bitten off. Typically, he says, the forage needs two weeks or a little more recovery time during rapid growth in the spring, and up to six weeks when the weather is dry and hot and regrowth is slowest.

The advantages from better grass management are many, Gibson says.

  1. He now keeps his calves several months longer, marketing in August when prices are usually highest. If the year is dry and he needs to, he can sell the calves earlier.
  2. Besides feeding very little hay to his cows, Gibson also feeds only a small amount of cubed protein supplement -- about 100 pounds over 60 days in the late fall while they are grazing dormant native grass. The cubes cost $12 to $15 per cow. This is before they go onto fescue.
  3. When it's wet he doesn't have to worry about sinking his hay truck in the mud. He just rolls out a new electric fence and takes one up.
  4. Grazing is easy to manage. "People say it takes a lot of time. But if you spend 10 minutes a day looking at your cattle, you can do this," Gibson says.

"I guess the most important thing I've learned is you just can't do things the way everybody's always done it," Gibson says. "Everything just costs too much -- feed, fertilizer. It all has gotten too expensive.

"I really think I'm probably a lot better off financially than I was because my cattle are making money; they were probably losing money before," he adds. "And it's a lot more interesting when you're making money than losing money."

Eleven years ago, Larry Gibson went to an Extension meeting to learn how to winter cows a little cheaper on his ranch at Nowata, Oklahoma. The things he learned that day changed his life.

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