Growers save on feed costs by using grass

When the price of fuel, fertilizer and feed went through the roof three years ago, a group of University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture experts went back to basics to help struggling cattle producers manage their costs.

Pulling together ideas from county Extension agents, Tom Troxel, John Jennings and colleagues created a whole-farm grazing approach to match up with producer operations in Arkansas. Troxel is associate head of the Division of Agriculture’s animal science department. Jennings is an Extension forage specialist.

The goal: Provide grazing options to keep cattle producers from getting soaked while feeding in the winter. It’s the first time such a grazing program has come under one umbrella.

Thus was born 300 Days of Grazing, a program that contains eight practices cattle producers can adapt “to maximize returns from forage and depend less on harvested forage,” Jennings says. Typically, producers feed hay 135 days out of the year, from November to March.

Kenny Simon, coordinator of the program, calls it a “cookbook.” The starting point, Jennings says, is “to use what the producer has,” from soil fertility to forages to livestock.

On the fertility front that means planning how much forage is needed in the spring and then fertilizing accordingly, rather than broadcasting one rate. “You’re fertilizing for what the cow’s needs are, without fertilizing all of the pasture at the same rate,” Troxel says. “Think of it as strategic use of fertilizer, so you can have the right amount of forage when the cows need it.”

The goal of a grazing plan is to reduce feeding costs during the winter, Jennings says. “The economy changed three years ago, and we needed something more comprehensive that could be adapted to individual operations.”

Troxel points to the cost of $1.10 to $1.20 per cow per day to feed hay as reason enough to focus on forages. While some hay may be needed to fill in the gaps, it costs $25 a bale to harvest before it is moved out of the field.

More options needed

These experts aren’t anti-hay. They’re just against “having” to feed hay as the only option. To get producers to consider other options, they recommend “tweaking management styles” to individual operations rather than employing wholesale changes.

“Producers may have the right forage species out there for a 300-day grazing season, but the forage is not being managed effectively,” Jennings says. “This program lets producers grow into it.”

With the state’s two base forages of tall fescue and bermudagrass, growers can do 300 days of grazing by breaking it down into seasons — fall, winter, spring and summer. This requires planting high-quality forages, such as novel endophyte fescue or red clover, for early fall and winter grazing, and incorporating other legumes, crabgrass, ryegrass and even wheat into the mix.

Management involves using rotational grazing, legumes, summer forages and annuals, and targeting pasture fertilization to match the cows’ nutrient needs, Jennings says. “In late summer, you’re setting the stage for stockpiling pastures to be grazed in fall and winter, squeezing the hay feeding to January and February.”

A different mindset

For some producers, the grazing shortfall might come in summer, not winter, as it does at the Steve Swenson place near Clinton in Van Buren County. “We’re trying to get producers out of the mindset that they’ve got to feed hay only in the winter,” Simon says. Swenson used to run short of pasture in summer, but he’s learned management strategy and uses summer annuals like crabgrass to fill in the gaps of grazing.

The project has 90 demonstrations in 40 Arkansas counties, working with 40 different producers across the state. Demonstrations include stockpiled bermudagrass and fescue, winter annuals, minimizing hay feeding losses and minimizing hay storage losses.

“We encourage the growers to plan a forage system one season ahead,” Jennings says. “That way you can avoid getting caught short, and you have another set of options. You may come up short due to weather, but at least you have a plan.

“Once they try it, they’re usually asking, ‘What’s next?’”

First step: Taking stock of pastures

The starting point of a grazing program is knowing what you’ve got to work with. Start by taking five steps into your pasture and making notes of the species, the growth and density of the grass, say University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture experts Tom Troxel, associate head of the animal science department, and John Jennings, Extension forage specialist.

“Keeping pasture inventory records will allow you to make better decisions about how much forage you need for your cows,” Troxel says.


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WALKING THE PASTURE: Kenny Simon (foreground) University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture research associate, checks pastures in Van Buren County with John Jennings, Division of Agriculture forage specialist.

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GROWING GRASS: (from left) Cattle producers Shari and Steve Swenson talk about grass production with John Jennings and Kenny Simon of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.