300 days of grazing
Your beef cows graze pastures about seven months a year; the other five months, you're feeding purchased or harvested feed. That statement is most likely true because it's the average, whether you're in the North or the South. Estimates from Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin all fall in that same window: cows graze about 225 days, then they eat hay the other 140 days.
Four years ago, University of Arkansas Extension experts saw that the price of feed, fertilizer, and fuel had all taken a dramatic jump. They decided the best thing they could do to help beef operators in their state was to find ways to extend the pasture-grazing season.
“We decided 135 to 140 days of feeding hay was too much; it could be much less,” says Tom Troxel, beef specialist at Arkansas. “We developed this idea of the 300 Days of Grazing Program. As it turns out, it is adaptable just about anywhere.”
If the grazing period can be 300 days, that chops the hay-feeding period to about 60 days – three more months on pasture, three less months on hay or grain, on average. “The pasture is the cheapest feed we have,” says John Jennings, Arkansas Extension forage specialist.
The specialists decided to implement the 300 Days of Grazing Program on demonstration farms scattered around Arkansas. They now have 110 farms in the program, with collective savings of over $200,000 so far. And they feel they've just scratched the surface.
They use this five-step process to begin the program:
Step 1. Inventory the forage base on the farm.
Step 2. Determine the management practices that will increase grazing days.
Step 3. Add complementary forages, such as winter annual grasses and legumes to extend seasonal grazing.
Step 4. Plan grazing and forage practices for an entire year.
Step 5. Monitor and adjust as each unique year unfolds.
Below are some of the practices Troxel and Jennings most like to incorporate.
• Stockpile forages. This is one of the most important practices to extend grazing. It is accomplished by fertilizing some pastures in August and letting forage grow ungrazed for two months or longer, accumulating forage for grazing deep into winter months.
“We graze Bermuda grass first, starting in October and November,” says Jennings. “After Bermuda grass gets a freezing rain or snow on it, the animals refuse it. So it's good until about mid-December. On the other hand, stockpiled fescue holds up very well all winter. We start grazing it in December, giving it longer to accumulate.”
• Strip-graze. This can double the grazing days on stockpiled forage in the fall and winter, notes Jennings. It can mean a $10-per-cow advantage. It utilizes electric fence to create the strips, forcing cows to eat all the forage in a strip and reducing waste from tromping.
“We don't like a lot of permanent fence,” says Jennings. “Moveable electric fences give a lot of flexibility to move and adjust pastures and subdivide as needed.”