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Grazing myths that reduce profitability

Greg Halich for Progressive Forage Published on 31 January 2018
Cattle grazing in the snow

I’m an agricultural economist at a land-grant university. One advantage I have in my work is I also farm; I grass-finish cattle and have partnerships on cow-calf and sheep operations in other locations.

I get to see how theory and practice match up and, in some cases, it isn’t pretty. One thing I have noticed is: Costs are not always accounted for when it comes to recommended grazing practices. If you ignore costs, partially or fully, you will invariably do too much of whatever you are considering.

In this light, I will highlight five grazing recommendations (myths) many folks are taking to extremes – and reducing the overall profitability of their farms and ranches in the process.

Myth No. 1 – Cattle need to be moved every day

Rotating cattle frequently has definite advantages: increased pasture growth, increased forage utilization and potentially balanced forage intake that does not swing from one extreme to another. Roy Blaser, one of the pioneers in grazing research from Virginia Tech in the 1960s, found the largest improvement in carrying capacity and forage productivity came from going from continuous grazing to a basic three-paddock rotational grazing system.

Further improvements in carrying capacity were found as subdivisions increased (and period of stay decreased), but these improvements were progressively smaller. Three to four paddocks with weekly moves produced 75 percent or more of the overall efficiency gains compared to continuous grazing.

There are additional costs as rotation frequency increases; the main one is increased labor but also potentially additional grazing infrastructure required to handle the more frequent moves – such as watering points. The increased labor costs alone will limit the cost-effectiveness of rotation frequency.

This is because labor costs increase at a near linear rate (moving every day will have almost twice the labor cost as moving every two days), while the benefits of increased rotation frequency slow down dramatically after the first three or four subdivisions.

The challenge is determining when the additional costs exceed the additional benefits for a particular operation as you keep increasing move frequency. (The article “How often should you move your cattle” in the May 2017 issue of Progressive Forage provides details on how to estimate this balancing point.)

The main conclusion was: A one-size-fits-all approach or recommendation for grazing frequency does not work. One-day moves may in fact be the most profitable for one operation, while one-week moves may be the most profitable for another. In general, the more cattle you have, the more often you can afford to move them.

Myth No. 2 – Cattle need to clean up the pasture

There is a natural tendency to think forage left in the pasture after a grazing cycle is wasted. Possibly this is a remnant of the cultural history of this country – “waste not, want not” – and other Protestant idioms ingrained into our psyche. Regardless of its origins, insisting on lawnmower-like pastures will have negative effects on profitability.

I have heard too many presentations related to rotational grazing stressing increased utilization, with no mention whatsoever related to animal performance. However, reduced animal performance due to excess forage utilization has been well documented as far back as the 1940s by another pioneer of grazing dynamics, D.B. Johnson-Wallace at Cornell University. In one of his studies, cattle intake was monitored over a nine-day period.

Dry matter intake for cows started out at 32 pounds per day for the first three days, then dropped to 20 pounds per day for the next three days and finally went to 10 pounds per day for the last three days as cattle cleaned up the pasture.

While this particular study looked at a nine-day period, the same results could have been obtained by using a one- or two-day move but allocating a corresponding decrease in acreage. The main conclusion of his study was: If you push animals too hard on a pasture to increase utilization, performance will suffer.

While you may increase utilization in the short run by forcing animals to clean up each paddock, two other dynamics are working against you. First, taking the pasture sward down beyond a point during the growing season will require more carbohydrate reserves to initiate regrowth and reduce overall pasture growth.

Second, much of what you might think was “wasted” by the cattle at lower utilization rates would be available in the next grazing cycle.

The combined effect is: What may appear to be an increase in pasture utilization in the short term will be counteracted to some degree in the long term while still having the negative consequences of reduced animal performance. Out of all the myths discussed here, this may be the most costly to the bottom line and easiest to correct if only we could recalibrate our notion of “waste.”

Myth No. 3 – Never back-graze

One of the biggest advantages of going from continuous to rotational grazing is controlling when plants are defoliated and how long they are rested before the next grazing cycle. Not allowing cattle to constantly graze their preferred plants as soon as they are tall enough to wrap their tongue around them and forcing them to eat plants they might otherwise avoid in the short term make a more productive pasture.

Once we start rotational grazing, there are two new questions related to back-grazing that are relevant: What is the maximum stay we can get away with to avoid back-grazing?

Can we have some limited amount of back-grazing that does not significantly cut into pasture production? For some die-hard rotational graziers, even asking these questions may amount to heresy, so I will carefully explain my reasoning.

If you give cattle a new pasture allocation with access to the last allocation, you will see virtually no back-grazing on that first day, assuming you gave them enough new pasture. The cattle will only start back-grazing as the fresh grass plays out.

At first, they will start grazing areas that were completely missed in the first round (if available), but will start re-grazing clipped plants as pasture availability diminishes. This second possibility is not ideal but, in my opinion, it is far better than the alternative, where cattle intake and performance goes down – potentially suffering drastically if you underestimated how much new pasture they would need.

To be clear, I am not talking about three- to four-paddock systems with one- or two-week moves. I am talking about fairly intense rotations where we are moving at least twice a week. Moving twice a week and providing access to just one previous allocation means the opportunity for regrowth and subsequent regrazing is at most one week.

The more intense your rotations are, the less room for error you have in pasture allocation if you do not allow back-grazing. You will invariably allocate on the low side on occasion. Would you rather your cattle go hungry and have performance suffer or allow your cattle to back-graze when you mess up?

Myth No. 4 – Need water in every paddock

In the perfect grazing world, we would all have four-ball permanent water systems in every paddock subdivision. In the real world, we typically have considerably less than this ideal. Water infrastructure can be expensive if you insist on having permanent water in every paddock.

Another option is moving a small portable tank to each paddock. This latter option may sound inexpensive, but if you account for the additional labor as well as the occasional major water leaks that will inevitably occur with this type of system, the true cost in most cases will be surprisingly high.

Having the ability to back-graze the previous one or two pastures gives you tremendous flexibility related to water supply. Having a few permanent water points that will not freeze for winter grazing combined with a few more semi-permanent water points set up during the growing season can provide most of the benefits of a Cadillac system as long as you are flexible in allowing limited back-grazing to get to these water points.

Myth No. 5 – You should be grazing 365 days a year

Many ranches could be more profitable by feeding less hay. However, there are also farmers and ranchers out there who in recent years have likely swung too far to the other side of the pendulum. The amount of hay that is most profitable will depend on a number of factors, the two most important being the base profitability of the enterprise and the net hay cost.

The higher the base profitability, the more hay feeding days that are desirable, and the higher the net hay cost, the less hay feeding days that are desirable. (The specifics with example scenarios and results are detailed in the article “Picking apples off the grazing tree: The stocking rate – hay feeding trade-off” in the November 2017 issue of Progressive Forage.

There are very plausible examples where zero hay feeding days would in fact be most profitable, but there are also very plausible examples where 150 or more hay feeding days per year would be most profitable. In the current market environment for an average cow-calf operation, 45 to 90 days of hay feeding is likely a good target.

However, you need to know the specifics of the particular operation (hay cost and base profitability) before you can determine this with certainty. Base your hay-feeding days and other grazing practices on analysis, not faith.  end mark

PHOTO: Will grazing 365 days a year be most profitable? In some situations it may, but there is no universal answer to this question. You need to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. Photo by Greg Halich.

Greg Halich is an associate extension professor in agricultural economics at University of Kentucky. Email Greg Halich