Swapping winter annuals for perennials saves money

Fred Greer says it is cheaper and easier to use Max-Q fescue instead of winter wheat for protein supplement on his northern Georgia ranch.

Greer, a retired banker who took over the family farm near Mansfield from his father in the early 1970s, says he’s always been careful with how he spends the farm’s limited capital.

“The main place you can control things is costs,” he says, adding you can only improve the bottom line a little with marketing.

Greer says he and his father have used limit grazing for nearly 60 years to get the most from winter pasture. In addition, they have used low-input farming each year to establish the winter grazing on 10% to 18% of the farm.

When he was still farming his winter pasture, Greer used an old tractor to minimally work the ground, then broadcast seed with a spreader on his pickup, and then lightly harrowed in the seed.

With all his emphasis on low-cost, efficient forage production, it makes sense that when he got the chance about five years ago, Greer chose a perennial cool-season grass to further reduce costs.

For him, Max-Q fescue was the logical choice. This specialty fescue with an essentially non-toxic endophyte was developed in Georgia and was showing itself capable, hardy and productive. In other regions, other forages might better serve this purpose.

“Cost was a big factor in the decision to change,” Greer says. “The conventional planting is definitely expensive with labor and fuel and wear and tear on machinery. And in a single-person operation like this, you can only spread yourself so far.”

Comparisons

To get an indication of just how economically valuable Greer’s forage change might be, consider these three studies from Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas. None are directly parallel, yet they seem relevant.

The most recent study, using 2008 budgets from Auburn University, compared stocker cattle performance and pasture costs on 37 different forage combinations.

It did not include any of the main non-toxic endophyte fescues, but a combination of Hallmark orchardgrass and ladino clover tied for first place with a pasture cost of gain of 30 cents per pound and the highest average daily gain of the top four places. The orchardgrass forage could be considered similar to a non-toxic fescue in many ways.

Interestingly, the other top two forage combinations in this study were Kentucky 31 tall fescue combined with ladino clover and Kentucky 31 with birdsfoot trefoil. For some of the researchers’ comments on their findings, read the accompanying story above.

The Auburn study included several winter-annual forage offerings. The best was a rye-ryegrass combination, which posted lower average daily gains than the orchardgrass-clover combination and a 60-cent-per-pound cost of gain — twice as high as the orchardgrass-clover.

A 2005 Georgia study of winter stocker budgets compared overseeded winter pasture with stockpiled Max-Q fescue and also with a combination of small grains and corn silage. It offered northern and southern budgets.

The northern Georgia budget showed a return over variable cost of nearly $28 per head for the fescue and a loss of $14 per head on the overseeded winter annuals. The southern Georgia study showed a return of nearly $35 per head on the fescue and a loss of almost $6 per head on the overseeded winter annuals.

The researchers added that running stockers on endophyte-infected fescue will reduce gains by one-half pound per day and profits by about $65 per head.

A University of Arkansas study from 2003-05 also used stocker cattle and tested two other “novel” endophyte-infected fescues against endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 fescue, cereal rye and annual ryegrass. Sometimes the ryegrass outperformed the “novel” fescues and rye, but sometimes not.

In the end, the researchers said the $88 returns on the non-toxic fescues would take four years to amortize establishment costs. They added that perennial forage crops decreased risk of annual stand establishment and offered a longer growing season and acceptable animal performance.

For Fred Greer, lower costs and good performance were important factors, but he also says common sense helped dictate his change: “I want the cattle to do the work.”

Greer matches calf marketing to forage cycle

Fred Greer says fall calving makes sense for his forage base and his marketing program.

His farm has a primarily cool-season base of fescue, with common bermudagrass mixed into some paddocks and a fair amount of clover in many. Time-controlled grazing lets him foster forage regrowth and nutrient recycling, and harvest what he wants, when he wants to take it.

Greer stockpiles forage through the growing season, grazing everything but leaving behind more and more forage until fall. All that stockpiled forage takes his cattle through the winter with very little hay. Mostly, he tries to have 25 to 30 round bales going into winter for emergencies or severe weather. He only buys hay.

He stocks lighter than many of his neighbors and says the payoff comes back in good cow condition, fast rebreeding and better calf condition.

Calves are born in September and October when the cows are in peak condition. Cows carry through the winter well on stockpiled cool-season forage, and when late-winter growth begins in February, his calves are really beginning to graze and supply much of their own nutrition, Greer says. Then they really grow.

He sells calves by July 1, in a countercyclical market, before the cool-season grass goes dormant.

Researchers offer caveats

Auburn University researchers tested 37 different forage treatments with stocker cattle using 2008 budgets and thereafter offered several lessons about how they compared or how things have changed.

The range of pasture costs has increased from the early 1990s, showing that as costs increase, beef producers need to redouble their focus on costs and returns.

• Forage yield matters, particularly if forage quality and other costs are about equal. Also remember, some forages are more efficient with nitrogen than others.

• Sorghum-sudan hybrids posted low daily gains and limited calendar days of grazing in this trial.

• As endophyte infection rate increased in fescue, cost of gain increased, reaching almost twice the cost in one comparative example.

• Adding legumes to tall fescue and orchardgrass substantially lowered cost of gain. The causes appeared to be higher quality and lower nitrogen usage.

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SUPPLEMENT: Fred Greer limit grazes his cows on endophyte-free fescue for winter protein supplement.

This article published in the May, 2010 edition of BEEF PRODUCERS.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.