Get the most out of forages

Jan 29, 2010
by DTN

If you want to talk to a beef producer who really knows how to manage pastures, you can’t do much better than Missouri’s John Wood. Forages are more than just one part of his herd’s feed regime; they are the only part.

Exclusive grass-fed-beef producer Wood made the move to the niche market in the late 1990s. He grew up as a fifth-generation commercial backgrounding feeder and made the switch after a grazing course taught him the concepts he would turn into a new business. “We were facing challenges at the time, and had reached a point where there were just two packer-buyers left here. Grass-fed beef caught my eye. At the time, it was a very unique marketing spin; no one else was doing it,” he recalls.

Today, Wood’s Grassland Beef business has breathed new life into the Canton farm. But being both cattleman and marketer takes a lot of time. Wood works into the wee hours of the morning most days, and has five full-time employees. He says he barely can keep up with online orders for the beef. He credits his success to two things: the right animals and the best pastures.

“Anybody can take a 500-pound calf to 900 pounds on decent forage,” he says. “The challenge for the grassfed producer is going from 900 pounds to 1,200 pounds because the maintenance requirements for an animal of that size are so much greater. We have to have high-quality groceries to see the gains we want of 1.5 to 1.75 pounds.”

Wood provides a variety of forages, but says he especially likes annual ryegrass because it reseeds itself. He’s also a fan of perennial ryegrass. In late summer, he plants oats and wheat for the fall. The goal is to transition from summer to fall grazing with lots of energy. “The main thing is to keep those plants vegetative,” he adds.

One of Wood’s favorite resources for pasture management ideas is South Carolina dairyman Tom Trantham. Considered unorthodox when he added irrigation and made a shift to more grazing and less total mixed rations, Trantham’s milkers now consistently top 18,000 pounds.

He continues to tweak his system, adding smaller paddocks and more irrigation.

His grazing program has been part of three Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education projects, and he says his goal is to net $60,000 from 60 milkers. Today, he has 25 paddocks, ranging from 2.5 to 3.2 acres. He rotates grazing areas daily.

While this approach is likely too intensive for the average beef producer, some of the tools of the dairyman’s trade are getting a second look from beef specialists.

Justin Sexten, beef nutrition specialist with the University of Missouri, says a project is under way to find ways to use a dairy wedge to help beef producers better manage forage growth rates across the state. “Dairy producers will go out weekly and estimate forage in a pasture. From that, they can create what is called a ‘grazing wedge’ showing where they should set aside pasture for hay, where the more optimal forages are that should be consumed, and so on. We want to bring that to the beef side of the business to help producers better manage their resources.”

Key to that is not just grazing programs, but also stocking rates. The right stocking rate can be the difference between profit and loss, and Sexten says it’s a hard number for most producers to perfect.

“The challenge is that we have to stock for years like 2009, when there was an abundance of forage, and for years like 2007, when we were very short going into July. When you’re understocked, there just aren’t enough mouths to utilize all the forage, so you’re really underutilizing your resources. But in a year of drought, you can’t get rid of enough animals.

“So it’s a balancing act, and every operation is dif ferent.

Some are willing to go out and add stocker cattle to help utilize additional forage, and others make hay.”

Grade your pastures

Many beef producers today have been nudged toward the idea of more intensive pasture management as a way to hold the line on costs. Pasture condition scoring is the key to keeping fields productive as long as possible throughout the season.

Sexten says that in the past, beef producers were worried mostly about quantity. “Beef producers often run out of forage before they run out of forage quality,” he says. “We’re working to change that mindset with rotational grazing programs and grazing wedges.”

When looking at pasture condition, three things are key: plant cover, diversity and vigor. Steve Barnhart, forage production and management specialist with Iowa State University, explains how to evaluate each of these elements and adapt as needed. Cover A quick way to evaluate this is simply to stand and look straight down at the area around your feet. You’re trying to determine what intercepts sun and raindrops. If you can see bare ground, make the assumption that you are short on ground cover. Over the growing season, it’s not difficult to have almost full cover in the spring months, but by midsummer, you often see bare areas with essentially the same stand because animals have removed it. So that visual cover changes by month over the grazing season, and it varies by region and forage type. You can influence it with fertility and grazing management. Diversity There is some biological value in selecting three or four well-adapted forage species you know will persist well in that site. Any more usually will add costs with no guarantee they will contribute greatly over a long period. Grazing management to maintain the vigor will keep more species present, and rotational grazing will allow legumes to persist better. If you fertilize a lot, grasses will become dominant. Oversowing, overseeding and, in the north, frost seeding are all opportunities to introduce additional species, perhaps more palatable and productive species. Vigor This is how well species are growing in a specific location over a period of the growing season. Typically, there’s less plant vigor over the summer, but you can anticipate the need for extra grass in those months and reduce animal numbers or utilize less grass in the spring, carrying over some excess into the summer. It will be a little lower quality and there will be some deterioration, but animals will continue to consume it. The key is knowing what species will grow in those areas— their characteristics, seasonality and nutritional quality. All are important in managing a good pasture production system. — Victoria Myers, DTN

“The challenge for the grass-fed producer is going from 900 pounds to 1,200 pounds because the maintenance requirements for an animal of that size are so much greater. ”