Keep Cows Grazing

December 6, 2013 08:56 PM
Keep Cows Grazing

Increasing the number of days your cows are grazing will help lower annual feed costs and improve profitability

Feed and forage represents your largest annual production costs, and they provide the greatest opportunity for you to make significant changes in a short period of time. In fact, annual feed costs typically make up the majority of differences between high-cost producers and low-cost producers.

University Extension analyses from several states with significant numbers of cow-calf operations have determined feed and forage costs represent 50% to 70% of annual cow costs. Further, a survey by USDA’s Economic Research Service found national total operating costs of $610 per cow in 2012. That survey also showed a wide range of operating costs—from $387 per cow in the Fruitful Rim (Florida and the Gulf Coast of Texas) to $884 per cow in the northern Great Plains.

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The devastating 2012 drought contributed significantly to higher cow-calf production costs in regions such as the Northern Plains, but data from previous years confirm that a variation of $500 from low-cost producers to high-cost producers is not uncommon.

Heading into winter, there is little you can do to change the cost of your harvested and stored feed supplies. Now, however, is an excellent time to start planning for grazing and forage harvests for next year.

Create a plan. "Feed is not only the major cost item in cow-calf production, but it is also the major factor influencing reproductive performance, which is the most important factor in cowherd profitability," explains Bob Weaber, Kansas State University Extension beef specialist. "This relationship establishes what should be the primary goal of cowherd nutrition programs—maintaining an optimally high reproductive rate."

Whether your operation is large or small and it includes native or tame grass pastures, proper planning can increase forage utilization and help improve reproductive efficiency. First, range and forage specialists say, you should establish goals that:

  • As many days as possible, meet the nutritional needs of the livestock from standing forage.
  • Harvest forage as efficiently as possible.

Match cows to forage. University of Nebraska beef specialist Rick Rasby says producers should select cows that match their feed resources.

"It is not only about output (weaning weight) but also about input (cow costs)," Rasby says. "On a fixed feed resource base, as the nutrient needs of the cowherd increase as a result of increased
mature weight and/or milk production, the number of cows that can be managed on this resource base decreases. If the number of cows don’t decrease, then outside feed resources need to be incorporated into the feeding program so that reproduction is not compromised. Increased mature weight and milk production increase annual cow costs. The flip side of that is that weaning weight will increase."

He says keeping your cows grazing is more economical than carrying harvested feeds to them to meet their nutrient requirements. As mature weight increases and/or milk production increases, the number of cows grazing a fixed pasture resource base needs to decrease. It is more profitable to produce another calf as compared to another couple of pounds of weaning weight per calf.
Optimizing traits like milk production and mature weight are likely more economical than being on the extreme ends for these two traits.

Pasture management. How you manage your pastures will also have an effect on how much you can reduce costs. That’s why many grazing specialists recommend you consider a management-intensive grazing (MIG) system. This type of grazing system can significantly increase forage utilization rates.

The utilization rate in continuously grazed pastures is about 30% to 40%. As in an MIG system, moving cattle from one grazing paddock to another can increase the utilization rate. Further, a four-year grazing study at the University of Missouri Forage System Research Center found that increasing the frequency that animals are moved can also increase grazing days per acre. The Missouri researchers found that moving cattle every three days compared to every two weeks resulted in 40% more grazing days per acre. Therefore, if the two-week moves provided 42 grazing days per acre, increasing to three-day moves increased the grazing days per acre to 58.

Michigan State University Extension educator Kable Thurlow says the same types of improved efficiency can be found in the grazing of stockpiled forages, crop residues and cover crops. The more frequently cattle are moved to a new paddock or strip of forage, the higher the utilization rate will be. Management is the key.

"Grass from rested pastures or hay fields can be grazed late in the season to improve grazing through summer slump or to extend the grazing season into the fall and winter," Thurlow says. "Stockpiled forage is typically excellent quality and fits well into MIG, allowing adequate forage plant rest during slow growth times. Saving forage acres for later growth can be difficult, especially if producers usually run out of graze-able acres during late summer or before snow depths inhibit grazing."

If you typically need to supplement grazing cattle with harvested feeds or if you overgraze your late summer pastures, you probably need more acres in the grazing system. You also may need to reevaluate your stocking rate and consider redu­cing that rate.

"Saving pasture acres is cheaper than feeding harvested, stored feeds," Thurlow says.
Crop residues and cover crops also offer an opportunity for an extension of the grazing season. Corn stover and cover crop grazing are an attractive option to help lower the cost of winter feeding.

"Grazing corn stalks can create challenges such as difficulties associated with providing water and fencing to remote locations," Thurlow says. However, grazing stalks and cover crops are incredibly cheap and will significantly decrease cost of production and can be worth the extra effort."

Maximize the Herd

maximize the herd

The Maximize the Herd Series equips cattle producers with the specific information they need to steer their herds to the next level of profitability. 

1. Opportunity with Drought
2. Buy Bulls for the Long Term
3. Raise Heifers to Be Better Cows
4. Graze to Lower Annual Feed Costs
5. Handle the Herd with Care

To contact Greg Henderson, e-mail

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