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Year-round grazing: Don’t let your money stand stagnant

Elisabeth Bianco Published on 10 November 2010

“If you’re paying for the ground year-round, you might as well try to use it year-round,” says Cliff Schuette, a grain and beef producer in western Illinois. This is the theory that thousands of farmers fail to put into practice.

With cash rent prices escalating, year-round utilization makes perfect sense. Why should we let acres of harvested ground previously in corn and soybeans sit vacant and unused from mid-October until early May? As we find ourselves in an economy like ours today, we cannot afford to leave the possibility of more income on the table.

As with anything else in farming, too many people follow the same old, time-tested traditions no matter how inefficient or expensive they may be. Just because Grandpa used to do it this way doesn’t mean it is still the most effective farming method.

Technology and human knowledge is changing rapidly, and we have learned much more practical methods for doing things in production agriculture. Extending the grazing season while utilizing management intensive grazing (MIG) is one of the best of these advancements.

Grazing cornstalks may be the most underutilized livestock practice today. There is so much value left out in the field that we let rot away. With cash rent prices, diesel fuel costs, fertilizer and seed corn prices going through the roof, why do we not take full advantage of every penny we put into our land?

According to Stephen Boyles, a professor at Ohio State University, cornstalks provide enough energy requirements to feed beef cattle at a stocking rate of 1.5 to 2 animal units per month (AUM).

By grazing fall calving cows that have had their calves weaned between 90 to 120 days, we may be able to push this envelope a little further. Additionally, these are the ideal animals to graze 12 months a year, as their energy requirements would be much lower in the winter months than a spring calving herd.

Often, protein supplementation is required when grazing cornstalks, but we can combat this as well as increasing our AUMs by overseeding cereal grains, turnips, etc. into standing corn. By the time the corn is harvested, the other crops have had sufficient time for growth and add more nutrition and tonnage to the corn residue we will be grazing. This, along with utilizing stockpiled fescues, will allow us to graze year-round.

Many successful operations that have utilized these ideas graze year-round, or come extremely close. Cornstalks that have been overseeded in turnips and oats or rye are strip-grazed for maximum efficiency until mid-December.

At that point, the turnips begin to lose their nutritional value. From then on, stockpiled fescues that have been left untouched since mid-July to August are fertilized with 50 to 75 pounds of nitrogen and then grazed. Utilized by fall calving cows, the fescue provides enough nutrition, with little supplementation required.

Depending on the weather, cows will eat through the snow to eat the grass. Some training may be required, but often such a simple task as dragging a piece of fence across the ground to uncover the grass is enough to teach the cows to work for their feed. As long as they know it’s there, they will uncover it.

My question then, is this: With prices elevating daily, why do we allow free money to slip away? Feed is the number one expense in a cow/calf herd, and a penny saved is a penny earned.

Margins are extremely tight, and staying profitable and viable becomes harder every year. So much effort is spent all summer preparing forages and purchasing feedstuffs that we often forget the most important point in the cattle business: cows work for us; we do not work for them.

To remain viable in today’s economy we must utilize every technology available, and this includes MIG. Extending the grazing season may be the easiest way for our cows to go back to work and lock in a profit for the producer.

If you are a beef or livestock producer, save your money and get away from feeding stored forages. Let the livestock do what they do best – graze. The minimal time required to prepare to winter graze animals is worth it when you have increased your farm revenue, turning your livestock operation from the red back into the black.

Even if you are a grain farmer, you still have two options to add to your bottom line. Purchase stocker cattle and graze them on your crop residue, or rent your residues to livestock producers. Both scenarios put money in your pocket. Let’s turn our traditionally dormant winter crop ground into a year-round, profit-generating asset.  FG

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

Editor’s note: Elisabeth Bianco is a student at Ohio State University. This article was submitted to the 2010 American Forage and Grassland Council’s “Youth in Grazing Management” essay contest and reprinted here with permission.