Drought, wildfires and grain prices have limited the production of roughage in recent years. That makes it very difficult to grow the cow herd on a national level, according to University of Nebraska Extension educator, Gary Stauffer of O'Neill.
At a UNL Beef Profit Tips meeting in Center recently, Stauffer said, "Right now, roughage is the limiting factor on rebuilding the cow herd. We're out of roughage."
One of the keys to filling in the forage gap could be cornstalks and other crop residue, he said.
He is worried that fewer cows and calves will continue to lead to fewer placements of feeder cattle in feedlots. This leads to less demand for grains and co-products. So, a smaller cow herd not only hurts beef producers, but also crop producers in the long run, said Stauffer.
With 2 million beef cows in the state and about 2.5 million cattle on feed, there are a lot of mouths to feed because throughout a beef animal's life, about 85% of the animal's diet comes from forages. As a percentage of feed costs, about 70% is attributed to the cost of forages.
With about 10.3 million acres planted to corn in the state, an obvious answer to the forage shortage is crop residue, he said.
"Every year, the state produces about 42 million tons of crop residue that would be available for grazing," he said. It breaks down to about 16 pounds of leaf and husk per bushel of corn produced. So, on a field that yielded 200 bushels per acre, at a usage rate of 50%, cows could consume up to 1600 pounds of leaf and husk per acre at a stocking rate of two animal unit months per acre.
Cornstalks can be grazed at a reasonable stocking rate without removing residue at levels that would be adverse to the soil health or subsequent crop yields.
Landowners are often hesitant to allow cornstalk grazing because they are worried about compaction issues that might impact yields the following year. Stauffer said that studies have proven that crop yields following both fall and winter grazing were not negatively impacted by the grazing.
Research conducted under center pivot irrigation at a study location near Brule proved that yields of soybeans and corn actually increased following grazing.
You can learn more about cornstalk grazing by contacting Stauffer at 402-336-2760 or by reading an upcoming print article in Nebraska Farmer.