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Irrigating Beef Yields

Dustin Donley can make more profit from beef on irrigated grass than he can from growing grain.

With annual rainfall averaging around 25 inches on his farm in western Oklahoma, Dustin Donley certainly knows the value of center pivots. Consequently, he’s already installed 17 pivots on the 5,000 acres he manages just south of Mooreland.

However, while one might expect the pivots to be pumping water onto corn, soybeans, or even wheat, Donley looks at things a bit differently. Although he grows nearly 2,500 acres of wheat annually, the majority of it is dryland cropped, while more than 2,000 acres of Bermuda grass are irrigated. That’s because Donley says he can make more profit from beef on irrigated grass than he can on irrigated wheat.

“I’m about 99% wheat and cattle,” Donley relates, noting that he typically runs about 800 head of Angus-cross cows. “I sometimes have a little bit of milo that I use in rotation with wheat, as well as some corn that I cut for silage. But 14 of the 17 pivots I own are planted to Bermuda, with 10 of those primarily harvested for hay only, while four are for grazing.”

Two of the remaining three pivots are typically planted to corn, milo, or wheat, depending on the need for silage, winter forage, or a rotation crop. However, this year they’re planted to a 27-seed blend of cover crops that will be returned to wheat in the fall. In the meantime, those, too, are being grazed, since the blend contains a number of different legumes.

“I also tried something new this year with the final pivot,” Donley relates. “Since I recently got approval from the state, I planted a quarter section to hemp for CBD oil. In fact, the state likes for it to be irrigated, because that encourages vegetative growth and further reduces the amount of THC in the plant.”

Grazing Irrigated Wheat

In addition to irrigated pastures and crop, most of the dryland wheat on Donley’s operation is grazed during the winter and early spring, while the rest is put up as wheat silage. Very little of it in any given year is actually harvested as grain.

“I usually graze wheat until around June 15,” he explains. “As a result, the cattle are on wheat about four months of the year and on Bermuda grass the other eight months.”

If there’s any doubt about the value of irrigation on grass, Donley says he could normally support one cow-calf pair for every 15 to 20 acres of dryland pasture. Yet, with irrigation, his fields of Bermuda can support one pair per acre. Once calves reach approximately 800 pounds on grass and silage, Donley ships them to a feedlot in Gage, Oklahoma, where he retains ownership until they are marketed. 

Bales Extra Grass

Even then, Donley’s Bermuda hay crop works to his advantage. Because he has more grass than his cattle can graze (particularly this season, due to all the rain he has received), he typically puts up about 5,000 round bales of Bermuda grass. He then keeps back about 1,000 bales for his own use and sells around 4,000 bales to the feedlot. 

While the extra water alone accounts for the increased volume of Bermuda, Donley says he also applies fertilizer through the pivots at regular intervals throughout the growing season. 

“It’s mainly 32-0-0 (nitrogen-phosphate-potassium), but I apply whatever the agronomist says the crop needs,” he says. 

“Due to irrigation, I basically have a guaranteed forage source,” he relates. “As long as I keep it watered and fertilized, Bermuda comes back every year. If I treat it right, it will treat me right,” he concludes.

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