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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.”
• Interseed legumes. Because legumes take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form usable by plants in the soil, this saves fertilizer and provides high-protein feed.
• Control feeding. When stockpiled forages are depleted, you will have to feed hay, silage, grain, or a combination. Covering hay during storage and using hay rings when feeding can cut hay loss and waste in half.
When you grind feed and practice controlled feeding, giving cows just what they need for a day and no more, waste losses can be reduced from 25% to as little as 1%.
Jennings says the savings from stockpiling and late-fall or winter grazing can save a producer up to $100 per animal unit.
“One demonstration farmer has told us that hay feeding used to take him half a day, every day. But since going to strip-grazing stockpiled forages, it takes him about 30 minutes twice a week to move the electric fence. He's saving $50 per animal unit.”
Several farms in the demonstrations are using the whole-farm approach by applying multiple components of the system. Those farms have been getting up to 350 grazing days a year (almost no hay-feeding days) when the weather cooperates.
Despite a drought across the South in 2011, some of these farmers were able to delay hay feeding until well into January 2012. Quick-growing crops, such as forage turnips, can help after a dry summer, says Jennings. If turnips get any fall moisture (and they always do, he says), they will produce quality grazing forage in as little as 60 days from seeding.
University of Arkansas www.aragriculture.org/forage_pasture/grazing_program/
Same Acres, 50% More Animals
Eddie Prince, a Pocahontas, Arkansas, farmer and cattle producer, says he doesn't know how much the 300 Days of Grazing Program has saved him. “All I know is that we're running 50% more cattle now on the same acres,” he says.
Prince, who farms with a brother and a nephew, grazes 30 cows and 300 stockers on 600 acres of mixed grass pastures. Before starting on the 300 Days of Grazing Program three years ago, they fed cows hay from November through April. For the last two years, they've cut that to 60 days of hay feeding.
A big part of their program is using electric fence to limit grazing area to just what the animals need for one day. Every day they move the fence and give a fresh strip of grass. It forces cows to eat about half of the available forage before moving on. Depending on the season and rate of growth, they'll typically cycle back to a grazing strip in 30 days or sometimes up to 90 days. “It lets the grass rest and regrow,” says Prince.
He says now that they have the system down, moving the electric fence every day takes less than 30 minutes. “We saw a difference in carrying capacity and performance really quickly,” Prince says. “I tell people to just invest a little money and try this. For $300 to $400 in electric fence supplies, you can get started and see what it does. If you like it, then you can take it to the next step.”