By Garry D. Lacefield
Grazing represents the cheapest way to feed ruminants on a cost-per-pound-of-nutrient basis.
Stored feed is usually the single largest value in livestock budgets and cost of stored feed is the best predictor of potential profitability in most beef cattle operations. Extending the number of days when grazed forages can be the primary source of nutrition can enable you to be lower-cost and more efficient in producing livestock.
There are many options available to help extend the grazing season. These options will vary in effectiveness based on your farm’s environmental conditions (especially the amount of moisture),
resources, animal requirements, existing forage, management system and the overall goals of the operation. Many crops can be used to extend cattle grazing into late fall and winter, including corn, a variety of crop residues, stockpiled tall fescue, brassicas and winter annuals such as rye.
Wisdom from abroad. During one of my first visits to New Zealand, I had the opportunity to visit many dairy, beef, sheep and deer farms. At one dairy, the farmer told me about his grazing program and that his goal was to optimize grazing and minimize the amount of stored feed. I remember him saying, "Every day grazed is money saved." While I admit the truth of that statement didn’t truly sink in that day, it has not only "sunk in" through the years that followed but has been reinforced by visits to other farms in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, several independent research studies have further verified that we can optimize grazing and minimize feed costs by establishing a goal of grazing more of what we produce.
Years of research and farmer experience clearly shows that the best predictor of profitability in the beef industry is simply the cost of the hay and silage that is required to winter animals. In addition, we know that the quality of grazed pasture is usually higher than the quality of the same plant that is harvested as hay. How many days and how much hay or silage will you have to feed to your animals this winter?
I want to emphasize my point with a study that was conducted by Jim Gerrish while he was a
researcher at the University of Missouri. He compared the cost of a typical tall fescue grazing system to the cost of other grazing options. With the tall fescue system, hay was fed 130 days at a cost of $1.32 per cow per day. This resulted in a wintering cost per cow of $172.
Regardless of the grazing system used, every day that was grazed by the cow was money saved. Stockpiling reduced hay feeding days from 130 to 70; cost per cow per day went from $1.32 to 31¢; and total wintering cost for each cow was reduced by $102.
Garry D. Lacefield is a professor and Extension forage specialist at the University of Kentucky.