Enough Forage Matters As Much As Good Enough

Beefs and Beliefs

Forage quantity is a key component for how well your cattle perform while grazing.

Published on: May 31, 2012

I was gone all last week and before I left I made very sure the calves I have on the gain had enough to eat in their daily moves to new pasture.

I calculated their average grazing consumption, in area per day since I got them, I considered the forage quality and quantity on the ground, and I added some extra forage for safety.

I have been moving them two to three times a day, which gives better forage utilization and quality -- if I do my part. So I figured I'm giving up a little of both by going to daily moves.

I also planned to let them back-graze to water for the five days I was gone. In the worst case I hoped if I was a little short on forage in one or two of the poorest temporary paddocks they might make up for it by going back and eating something they left on previous days. Incidentally, all my paddocks are temporary.

Part of my efforts and planning were also intended to give my cousin more leeway to fit the daily moves into his time constraints while I was away.

It worked out well, I think. The calves looked good when I arrived home. They seemed full and happy and there was adequate forage left behind them.

The forage was not as well trampled or as evenly consumed as when I move the cattle more times per day, but it was acceptable.

So here's one of the key points about performance I've learned over the years and one of the primary things I was planning for before setting up paddocks and leaving town:

One of the first limiting factors on cattle performance in many grazing situations is inadequate forage quantity -- put another way, they don't have enough grass to eat.

This has been shown true in trial after trial and is almost universally accepted by all forage and ruminant nutrition and forage researchers. Yet it's almost universally ignored by all but the most advanced graziers.

Too often, cattle just get what's there and that's it. So in the spring and early summer they have more and in the late summer and maybe fall and winter they have less. Depends on cool-season versus warm-season makeup of the pastures but the growth times are surplus and the slow-down or dormant times are filled with shortage.

Yet the magic number for grazing is around 2,200 pounds of standing forage dry matter. Anything less and you're limiting performance. When you go below 1,000 pounds standing forage you're severely limiting performance, say most range and pasture "experts."

Of course, that's just the quantity side of the equation. Quality of the forage matters too. But I digress.

So for the sake of this discussion, I have a combination of fescue and low-successional native grass. Average-to-good fescue with good plant spacing will have 160 pounds of dry matter per inch per acre. The range runs from 50 pounds to 265 pounds per acre inch, depending on plant density and stem/leaf density.

Bermudagrass in an average-good stand will average 235 pounds dry matter per acre inch, with a range from 80 to 730 pounds.

Tallgrass prairie varies from 120 to 300 pounds per acre inch, sometimes more.

Shortgrass prairie often varies from 30 to 120 pounds dry matter per acre inch.

A nice online publication for measuring forage can be found on this ATTRA site and one from Texas on forage availability and animal intake can be found here.

Oklahoma State University animal scientist Gerald Horn says wheat pasture is subject to similar limitations to all the other forages when available forage drops below 1,000 pounds or so. He always says if you can hide a basketball in the wheat it's good grazing and should provide good performance.

Never delude yourself. Forage quality cannot make up for insufficient quantity.