Three hundred days of grazing is possible
By Doug Rich
"We are trying to make this operation as cost effective as we can," Shari Swenson said. "Even though calves are high there is still no profit if you are spending all of your money on fertilizer and diesel fuel."
Shari Swenson and her husband, Steve, have been able to accomplish that goal by using the 300-day grazing program developed at the University of Arkansas.
"In 2008 we saw a tremendous increase in what we call the three 'Fs'--feed, fertilizer and fuel," Tom Troxel, associate department head of Animal Science at University of Agriculture, said. "The cost of those inputs has not gone down since 2008."
Troxel said researchers met with Extension agents across Arkansas to discuss how to help producers manage around these high input costs. This meant getting more efficient in pasture management, more efficient in hay management and more efficient in feed management. The result of that discussion with Extension agents was the 300-day grazing program.
A survey of cattle producers across the U.S. from Wisconsin to Mississippi showed that producers feed hay for an average of 140 days. The average number of hay feeding days in Arkansas is 135 days.
"There is no reason in Arkansas with the forage options we have that we need to feed hay that long," John Jennings, Extension animal scientist at the University of Arkansas, said.
The 300-Day Grazing Program has five steps for producers to follow as they work toward the goal of increasing the grazing season on their farms and ranches. First producers need to inventory the forage base on their farm. They need to know what they have and when it is growing. Secondly producers should determine what grazing or forage management plans they can add to increase the seasonal grazing period for the available forages. Rotational grazing of forages and strip grazing of stockpiled forages has been used successfully to increase the grazing period. Next if there are gaps in the seasonal distribution of forages producers need to look for complementary forages to fill those gaps. The next step is planning ahead. Jennings said producers should plan grazing and forage practices ahead for the whole year. Finally producers need to monitor their forages and adjust livestock, as needed based on conditions as they occur each year.
Steve and Shari Swenson use rotational grazing and strip grazing of stockpiled fescue on their farm. They agree that rotational grazing is really the key to their grazing system. A 40-acre pasture on the front side of their property has been divided into five-acre paddocks.
"At first I did not want to mess with electric fence because it sounded like a lot of extra work, but once we got it in here I will swear by it." Steve Swenson said.
The grass on their farm is mostly bermudagrass, fescue and mixed grass that includes fescue, white clover, lespedeza and vetch. A few years ago they began overseeding with white clover as part of another Extension research project. This complementary grass has done a lot to improve grazing on their farm. Swenson said the clover and electric fencing supports the whole farm.
According to the University of Arkansas legumes like white clover are desirable species in pasture. Legumes fix their own nitrogen and are not dependent on additional nitrogen fertilizer. This nitrogen is available to neighboring grass plants when the clover dies or is recycled by grazing livestock.
The Swensons seeded their first white clover in 2008. They have not used any nitrogen fertilizer on those acres since they overseeded with the clover. Those 40 acres are used for grazing early in the season and for a hay crop later in the summer.
After the drought last year Shari Swenson thought it would be a miracle if they had any grass at all this year. The fescue came back in good shape and the clover is trying to come back.
Shari Swenson said although they were able to start grazing by the first of March this year, their grazing season has been running from April 1 to Feb. 10 since they started the program. The cows start out on a fescue and clover mix. After fescue they move cattle to bermudagrass, which they also cut for hay.
Bermudagrass is a good warm-season grass but it is expensive to grow because of the fertilizer it requires. Swenson said they are trying to transition to more mixed grasses in their operation.
"We do strip graze in the fall," Swenson said.
They stockpile grass on 40 acres of pasture and use polywire to move the cattle every day or two. Swenson said that way they clean up everything, otherwise they pick and choose what they wan to eat.
"They eat the good grasses right away and the rest gets old and tough, but when you put them in there and give them just 50 feet they clean everything up," Swenson said. "Then we don't have to mow because they are our own little mowing machines."
According to research at the Batesville Research Station the average savings for stockpiling fescue per animal unit compared to feeding hay averaged $42 in 2008, $54 in 2009, and $48 in 2010.
Troxel said the goals for the 300-day grazing program were to enhance forage utilization, demonstrate efficient and targeted fertilizer use, reduce hay feeding to 60 days or less, maintain 90 percent net calf-crop, and wean an average weight of 550 pounds. The results at the Batesville Experiment field, where they have a 38-head fall calving herd, have been impressive. Herd breakeven, total specified cost divided by pounds of beef sold, decreased 29 percent from year one to year three of the demonstration. Direct expenses decreased by 49 percent per animal unit from year one to year three.
Days of grazing have consistently been over the 300-day mark. In 2008, the first year of the demonstration, they recorded 347 total days of grazing. This was followed by 311 days of grazing in year two, and 330 days in year three.
"We have had over 100 on-farm demonstrations with nearly $200,000 in direct savings to producers so far," Jennings said.
The 300-day grazing program does require more intensive management practices but it has been successful in decreasing input costs and increasing days of grazing.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.