Fewer Inputs, More Profits

February 13, 2009 11:47 AM

Converting to grass-fed beef was a gamble that has paid off well for Kirk Bruns. In the past nine years, the Bloomfield, Neb., beef and dairy producer has switched most of his row crop acres to grass for his 150 Angus beef cows and 60 Jersey milk cows. The forage-based system of grasses and legumes has resulted in better profitability for both his dairy and beef operations.

Bruns and his wife, Kristi, started converting their 560-acre farm to grass by first changing their conventional dairy operation to a grass-based milking system. Their dairy cows are moved to a new grazing paddock after each milking.

About 120 acres of pasture near their barns are irrigated and planted to grasses and legumes. The Brunses move their dairy cows through this system of paddocks. The beef cows then graze what the dairy cows don't eat, plus the remaining acres farther away from the barn.

"The beef cows are the cleanup crew. It works really well for both herds; all the cows get optimum nutrition," Bruns says.

The Brunses' beef cow herd is evenly divided between commercial and registered Angus cows. The Brunses specialize in genetics that do well on grass and sell some purebred bulls and heifers. Their commercial cattle are sold to Tallgrass Beef Company in Kansas, where they receive a premium over conventional markets for the animals that qualify after an ultrasound is done for tenderness, back fat, intramuscular fat and ribeye area per hundredweight. Grass-finished animals are sold at approximately two years of age, weighing 1,200 lb. to 1,300 lb.

Three years ago, the Brunses began receiving a premium for selling certified organic milk. Although the switch from conventional to grass-based dairying means less milk production—roughly a third of the amount as year-round milking—profitability is better.

"Input costs are way less for a grass-based operation. We used to write so many checks for inputs, such as feed. I'm amazed at how little we have to spend now. It was a good decision to go to grass," Bruns says.

Their lifestyle has also changed. The dairy cows calve in April and are milked through grass season, then dried up in December. The Bruns enjoy the winter hiatus from twice-daily milkings.

"It's a nice break to have the winter off from dairying. We still have to take care of the cows, but Kristi has time to help a local tax accountant during the winter, and it gives us a chance to do other things," Bruns says.

Kirk Bruns, Bloomfield, Neb., has converted his entire farm to a grass-based system for his beef and dairy herds. He also sells purebred Angus cattle with the genetics to finish on grass.

Studied, then switched.
Before he made the changes in his conventional beef and dairy operations, Bruns spent a lot of time attending educational grazing programs and pasture walks. He also talked with other producers about their grazing systems.

"I decided to go to a grass-based system because it looked like the simplest and most profitable way to work," Bruns says.

Through trial and error, he slowly began changing his corn fields to pastures. He also hired a grazing consultant to advise him.

"Our consultant had lived in New Zealand and learned about their grass-based dairies. He helped us lay out our paddock system, determine where to position our barn and establish pastures in row crop fields," Bruns explains.

His paddock system has grazing cells, ranging from 5 to 40 acres in size, which can be divided with temporary fences. Most of the pastures are a cool-season grass-and-legume mix of red and white clover, orchardgrass, meadow brome, wheatgrass and Garrison creeping foxtail. The foxtail is very productive and works well in wet areas of irrigated pastures.

Bruns also has a warm-season grass pasture that consists of big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass, interspersed with clover. The warm-season grasses are grazed only once each year by the beef cowherd, but the forage that is provided during the heat of summer is available when it is most needed.

Surprisingly, the hardest part of the changeover has been establishing the grass. In some fields, it has taken more than five years to get a dense stand of grass, Bruns says.

"It seems so simple, but it isn't. I've learned a lot about seeding rates and now usually double the recommended rates. It also takes a long time to develop a well-rooted sod," he says.

He plans ahead for potential forage shortages and plants annual grazing crops—such as corn, oats, turnips, millet, sudangrass or rye—as needed. A field where he winters his cows will usually be planted to one or more annual crops.

For winter forage needs, Bruns stockpiles his pastures, grazes beef cows on leased cornstalks and feeds some hay. He recently established a new alfalfa field that is available for haying and grazing. "Now that we are certified organic, it's harder to find good organic hay, so I decided to grow my own," he says.

Fill the forage gap. "Kirk has found the power of grazing. He tries to graze as much as possible with as many species as possible. That diversity of forages and grazing methods gives him many options," says Terry Gompert, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension educator who focuses on grazing.

Based in Center, Neb., Gompert has taught many of the grazing workshops and management sessions that Bruns and other producers attend to pick up ideas for their grazing systems. Gompert says one of the best ways to have enough forage is to plant annuals.

The first priority is for producers to identify at what point in the grazing season they are short of forage, and then find an annual that will fill the gap.

"Don't plant what you've already got; plant another crop to use during times of short supply," Gompert says.

Another priority is to plant the crop to the forage gap. For example, if forage is short early in the growing season, Gompert suggests that producers plant a cereal rye or Italian rye to fill the gap until their grass pastures are ready. For the "midsummer slump," he suggests they try foxtail millet or sudex. If forage is short in the fall, plant turnips, cereal rye or oats.

A third goal is to match the maturity of the plant and type of forage to the type of animal that you are trying to feed. Depending on whether you're feeding cow–calf pairs, dry cows, yearlings or finishing steers, producers should match the nutritional needs of the animals with the forages.

A fourth way to fill the forage gap is by planting "cocktail mixes." For example, planting a combination of annuals after a wheat crop will provide additional forage and also may reduce the amount of fertilizer required by the crop.

"Research from North Dakota suggests cocktail mixes of annuals such as sugar beets, millet, lentils, sweet clover, milo [grain sorghum], turnips and rape produce microrhiza in the soil and reduce the need for fertilizer," Gompert says.

Bruns is a strong proponent of grass-based beef and dairy systems and is convinced that he's on the right track for even greater production and profitability.

"We have steadily increased production year by year," Bruns explains. "As we've increased animal production, we have also improved land quality by keeping it in permanent cover and allowing it to rest between grazing periods."

"We are grazing more animals per acre now, and the beef enterprise has improved both the good and poorer land. It's been really successful for us," he adds. BT

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