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How to make more grass equal more beef
As you move your pastures toward a system of management intensive grazing, you're going to grow more forage—maybe even twice as much. That begs the question: How do you manage your herd to best utilize that extra grass to give you a payoff in more pounds of beef sold?
Justin Sexten and Rob Kallenbach, forage specialists at the University of Missouri-Columbia, say most cattle producers have three choices:
• Expand the cow herd.
• Buy in stocker calves.
• Keep your homegrown calves longer.
“It's a matter of determining when you have the extra pasture growth and then inventorying your herd for peak demand of that grass,” says Sexten. “Your goal is to get peak pasture production and peak demand from the herd to match up.”
Fall Calves Work Best
Kallenbach says this process of evaluating peak production and peak demand will lead some producers to revamp their calving system from spring to fall. That's because fall calves are about the perfect size by the next spring to go on grass, right when cool and wet spring weather is producing the most grass.
“The market has been rewarding bigger feeder cattle, 750 pounds or bigger,” he says. “To get them to that size, I have a hard time with calves born in the spring. You have to keep them a long time and feed them through a winter to get them to grazing the next spring as yearlings. With fall calves, you don't have that issue.”
Adds Sexten, “Fall calving works well to manage excess forage in the spring when it is too wet to make hay. It offers greater flexibility in the summer, because in dry years you can market the calves when forage begins to get short. And in fall calving systems, peak cow-nutrient demand occurs around the first of December. If the cows have had opportunity to gain condition during the summer and early fall, they can use this condition during the winter when forage quality and quantity are lower.”
When it comes to utilizing all the forage a farm can grow, Kallenbach says he'd rather have his herd a little overstocked than understocked. “If I'm overstocked and run into a problem, I can feed my way out of it with hay or grain,” he says. “Or I can sell a few cattle to work my way out of it, too. But if I'm understocked with grass going to waste, it's all left on the table.”
He sees many farms and ranches taking the opposite approach—understocked—because they worry about running out of feed. Many cows tend to be overconditioned as a result, carrying more weight than they need.
“You can actually pinch (underfeed them to let them lose some fat) cows for a while and not impact performance,” he says. “That's another reason why I think it's easier to manage systems that are slightly overstocked.”
Kallenbach says if you want to fully utilize the extra pasture grasses you grow from better management, you need to implement a system of rotational grazing. That involves breaking pastures into smaller paddocks and rotating cattle through them a few days in each paddock. In some cases, this can let you double the number of animals carried on a given acreage.
“I like a system of six paddocks. I can have them graze a paddock for four or five days, then give it 28 days of rest before they come back to it.
“It gives the plant a rest period to regrow itself. When I move cows from one paddock to another, I can then look at what's left behind. If it's under 2 inches of growth, I know I should have moved them a day or two earlier,” Kallenbach says.
Ideally, the residual when cows are removed from a pasture paddock is 3 to 4 inches tall for cool-season forages. Then when cattle return to that paddock, it should be 8 to 10 inches tall. If it's over 10 inches tall, grass is growing faster than the herd can eat it, and one or two of the paddocks can be stored and grazed later, or made for hay.
“Rotational grazing lets me put as good of feed as possible in front of the cows,” Kallenbach adds. “If I'm in a position where I have to put cows back in a pasture that is only 4 inches high, it tells me I should buy some feed or maybe take some weight off the cows. I can manage that, but if I've got the cows in one big pasture, there aren't as many things I can do to manage it.”
Kallenbach says, on average, only about 40% or 50% of the production of most pastures and hayfields is utilized by the animals.
“If a pasture produces 2,000 pounds of forage per acre, on average, less than 1,000 pounds are used in a productive way,” he says.
Farmers wouldn't accept that with corn or soybean fields, and they shouldn't accept that with pastures either, he notes.
“As a practical matter, we can't harvest it all. We'd have to graze it into the ground to do that,” he says. “But with some step-by-step management practices, we can go from 40% or 50% utilization to at least 75% and increase beef production by that same amount.”
By Duane George