Are You a Cattle Farmer or a Grass Farmer?

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch

Recently I sat down with a producer about modifying his forage plan for the farm he manages. He wanted to reduce his need for hay and minimize the amount of supplementation he needed to provide. I made the comment that producers, whether they are dealing with cattle, horse, goat, or sheep, need to think about doing more with forage and less with feed. Now before some of you go and get too mad with me, let me explain what I mean.

I am in no way saying that we need to stop giving the cattle any feed at all. I will be the first to tell you we need to supplement our cowherds to meet their need. I also will tell you to feed your calves after you wean them to promote weight gain and to bunk break them. But I also want you to use the feed as a supplement to the pasture they are getting. Not the other way around. With input costs climbing every day, it will become increasingly important to put pounds on your calves and maintain your cows through the year as cheaply as possible. The best way to accomplish this is with forage.

I would like to see a change in the mindset of our county cattle producers. Instead of a cattle producer, start thinking of yourself as a forage grower. You simply use the cattle to harvest the forage for you. Give a little more attention to the pasture’s needs. Am I taking good care of the pasture or abusing it? Is it the right pH for grass growth? Are there proper nutrients for grass growth? Is the grass growing at all? If we are dry the grass probably isn’t growing. Unless you have designated the pasture as a sacrifice area, cattle should be removed. Leaving cattle on this pasture will have an impact for years to come.

Try getting a little more use out of the grass you already have. Continuous stocking of a pasture yields 40 to 50 percent utilization of the forage. By simply dividing the pasture into 3 to 5 paddocks and rotationally grazing, you up the utilization to about 60 percent. If you go intensive and rotate cattle every three days, you can bump utilization up to 80 percent or better. Rotational grazing is good for the forage because it gives the grass time to rest. You may be surprised at how it affects your herd too. I know it sounds daunting but rotational grazing is easier than it seems. Once the cattle learn they are going to fresh grass, moving them only take a few minutes. And as I stated before, you can make it as simple or complicated as you want with the number of paddocks. I’ve even heard of some intensive grazers who move their cattle every few hours!

Speaking of getting the most out of what you already have, do you have too many cows anyway? I would venture to say that most of us are overstocked. General recommendation is two acres of good grass for each cow and her calf. What is your stocking rate? Many producers in the area probably have plenty of grass for the summer but fall far short during the winter. Perhaps we need to shift some acreage to a cool season grass. I can picture some eyes rolling right now. Even in this area, cool season forages have their place. The key is management. Cool season forages generally aren’t as productive as warm season grasses. Most — well, all but fescue — can’t take the abuse bermudagrass can either. All this needs to be taken into account. Also keep in mind that overseeding dormant bermudagrass pastures does extend the grazing season but very little of this is fall growth unless planted in late summer or early fall and fertilized well. And if you use ryegrass, there is even less chance of having much fall grazing.

Perhaps we need to reduce our cattle numbers to a stocking rate we can support in the fall and winter. Consider weaning and grazing calves on the excess forage in the spring and summer to increase sale weights. The added income from heavier calves is always nice and calves can make decent gains with a little supplementation on bermudagrass. Or maybe you can create a lucrative market for the forage as high quality hay. Producers never seem to be able to find enough GOOD quality hay.

Think about some alternative forages. Fence in that cornfield after harvest for some fall grazing and let the rye grow. You can fence in cotton fields and peanut fields too. You can even use soybean fields! Just remember that these are best suited to cow herds and they will need some supplementation on most of them. Studies have indicated that one acre of corn stubble will feed one cow for 60 days. Granted she will eat the corn first, then the shucks and leaves, then what stalks she can. By the second month she is going to need some supplementation but you have a cheap source of feed here. Not to mention that it is cheaper to let her harvest the forage than it is to cut and bale and haul the grass to her. In our climate, there is no reason we couldn’t graze our cows at least 10 months a year.

One last note here, or really, a question. Do you know how much it is costing to keep that cow for one year? The last data I saw indicated annual average cow costs were just under $600 per year. If you are utilizing poultry litter or swine effluent for fertilizer, you may be able to take a couple hundred off this figure. Even with record calf prices, producers should still be concerned with costs. One day, prices will go down and the profit margin goes down with it. Just look what happened to the record corn prices! I’m confident that low cost producers are doing all they can with forage and utilize minimal feed. Where does your herd fall? Most of you probably do not know. If you did, you would probably want to forget. So I challenge you to do two things. One, try to track expenses and get a reasonable estimate of what your costs are. You may be surprised at what it is really costing you. Until you know, you can’t take steps to reduce those costs. Two, stop being just cattle farmers and start being grass farmers too.