Cattlemen are often good stewards of the land. At the same time, many respect the land so much they often take its producing power for granted. In times of low input costs, producers had access to many resources that would enhance forage production ability. Most could also afford to go over their ground as many times needed, putting out fertilizer or cutting and baling hay. When “Mother Nature” turned off the rain, the majority could afford to buy harvested feedstuffs and pay the trucking to move them from one state to another when needed.
World demand for oil has grown to all time levels and a greater percentage of the corn crop has been devoted to ethanol production. Creating new price levels for fuel, fertilizer and feed combined with a variety of other costs that go with running an outfit; such as increased wages to the hired hand to cover increased cost of living, higher electric bills and more for about any product needed for day to day operation from steel t-posts to barb wire to a piece of tin for the roof of a shed.
Most view these costs as a matter of tightening the belt and working harder to get through. Others know if they cinch up that belt one more time, they will quit breathing. For a good number, the only option is to take a long range approach to the problem. In parts of the U.S., simple changes in pasture management could help lighten the load or loosen the belt.
“I think for most producers in the Southeastern U.S. to survive, they have to start incorporating legumes into the pasture as a source of nitrogen and shorten winter feeding by extending the grazing period,” says Dr. Gerald Evers, Fellow and Professor in Pasture Management, Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center, Overton.
Cattlemen can make better use of the resources available on the ranch going to a grazing system designed to make each operation more efficient. Evers has a plan, which he stresses can be modified to each location. “Cattlemen should divide their open pasture acreage into about 40 percent hay meadow; 40 percent for over seeding ryegrass and clover in the fall for February grazing and 20 percent for a feeding/calving area,” he says.
Evers quickly reminds producers these numbers do not have to be exact depending on the lay of the land and existing cross fences.
“These may not be the exact way to carve up your acreage, but it's a good start. Modify this to fit existing structures and fences where it will best allocate forage resources,” he says. “The hay and feeding area can be pastures that would not work in an intense management situation or too rough to be utilized as a hay meadow. It should be well drained because of hay feeding during wet weather. This pasture should also have some trees if possible to provide some protection from cold-wet weather for calving cows and young calves. This ground should never need fertilizer because of recycling nutrients from the hay and any supplements fed in this pasture.”
Dividing pastures and moving systematically through the rotation will help producers cut input costs in several ways. Most importantly through recycling of the available nutrients and extended grazing periods bring to the ranch.
“The longer we can keep cattle grazing the better distribution of recycled nutrients we're going to get in the pastures. Cattle excrete 65 to 90 percent of all plant nutrients they take in through urine and feces,” Evers says. “Recycling these nutrients makes producers more efficient. Grass can readily take up these nutrients and use them again. The hay meadow and over seeded acreage can be subdivided or put in a rotational grazing system. If you leave this area as one big pasture, most of the manure and urine will be by the water trough and in the shade areas, not evenly distributed.”
Management of the different grazing areas is obviously a key point to the whole program. Some initial costs may be high; however, by following the guidelines cattlemen should be able to cost effectively maintain pastures.
“Producers should harvest the only hay cutting by June 1. If the amount of hay is insufficient because of drought or other reasons, a second cutting can be taken. The nutritive value of warm season perennial grasses is highest in the spring. Therefore, the best hay cutting will be the first one in late May. Once the hay crop has been harvested, cattlemen can graze the meadow. In early September, remove all excess forage and apply about 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the hay meadow to grow a standing fall hay crop,” Evers says. “Removal of extra forage at this time is important, because the quality of warm season grasses is highly related to maturity. Clean the pasture of all extra forage. That way all you have is new fresh growth.” Evers cautions producers never to over seed the hay meadow because it will throw off the timing of the first cutting which hinders the system.
This approach does not shift the timing of some management, just changes harvesting methods. As fuel prices soar, a small change could save many dollars.
“In early fall, graze the other pastures and put out nitrogen on the hay meadow. When you normally would start feeding hay, turn the cows out on the hay meadow to graze the upper 2/3 of the standing hay crop, even if it's frosted,” Evers says. “The standing hay crop will have adequate protein and nutritive value for a dry cow. The winter feeding period should be reduced to January and February.”
According to Evers, for this system to work best cows should calve in December and January to match animal nutrient needs with nutritive value of available forage. He also stresses fall moisture is needed for this program.
“That dry cow is going to get all she needs grazing the fall hay crop. You will have to supplement first calf heifers on a program like this, but mature cows should be fine,” Evers says. “The ryegrass-clover pasture, which has higher nutritive value than warm-season forages, should be ready to graze in February, matching the cow's highest nutrient needs.”
Fertilizer costs have forced some outfits to decrease stocking rates because the budget would not permit proper applications. This system should allow producers to streamline fertilization efforts. As with any management tool, producers need to have a plan B to take advantage of what Mother Nature provides.
“The legumes are providing a nitrogen source for those acres involved and there shouldn't be a need to purchase nitrogen for that 40 percent. Producers will have to soil test and provide other nutrients when needed,” Evers says. “Always adjust stocking rates to forage availability and to the environment you are in. I like to tell everybody to have a hay barn, if you have excess grass, bale hay. Properly stored hay can last a long and maintain its nutritive value. This is an insurance policy against unfavorable weather conditions like drought or extreme winter storms.”
Ranchers have been lucky enough to follow the same management protocol and maintain profit levels for a long time. Challenges to the production system, mainly input costs, will force a rapid exodus from what worked in the past. New ideas or ways to allocate resources and become less dependent on high priced grains will undoubtedly bring the same attention as improving the end product did in the 90s.
Cattlemen willing to adapt and try something new always have a better chance of survival. Evers plan is one more tool for cattlemen to rely on as they try and adjust to a whole new beef industry.
“The grazing system is designed to help producers make the best use of the forages we produce in the Southeast. This three pasture grazing system is an example of how to maximize the strengths of warm-season perennial grasses and cool-season annuals and limit their weaknesses. Producers may use all or only parts of this system to improve the sustainability of their livestock operation,” Evers says. “The general plan emphasizes matching the highest quality forages with cow needs after calving when she is producing milk and rebreeding and to make the best use of the recycled nutrients.”