A well-managed pasture plan can boost profits for a cattle producer.
Dale Strickler, from Green Cover Seed, Bladen, Nebraska, presented Maximizing Pasture Production and Profit at the recent Cattle U and Trade Show, an event sponsored by High Plains Journal. He touched on topics such as grazing of native pasture, brome, fescue and pastured cropland, including crop residue pastures and cover crops.
Good managers have a thirst for curiosity and knowledge, he said, and they do not see themselves as producers of cattle but rather as harvesters of sunlight, he said.
“One pasture manager I know refers to himself as a ‘used sunlight salesman’ and when you have that realization, you start to see all the wasted sunlight that could have been used to make beef, and you see it everywhere.”
Beef producers historically know that in most years the price they receive for their product does not rise to match input costs, Strickler said, which means an opportunity to boost efficiency has to be used.
In 1973, live cattle were selling for about $0.50 a pound, and a gallon of diesel was $0.15, a new big round hay baler was $3,000, and a pound of nitrogen fertilizer was $0.07, he said. Now a pound of live cattle is around $1 and while it has doubled, a gallon of fuel has gone up about 20-fold, a baler has gone up 16-fold and a pound of nitrogen about six-fold.
“Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to maintain or increase our productivity without spending more on inputs,” Strickler said.
As a result producers have to take into account what maximizing pasture production and profits means. Cattlemen need to understand the principles by which plants grow to increase production.
“It is shocking at how little few cattle producers can even identify what plants are in their pastures and what those plants need in order to optimize production,” he said. “Then the challenge becomes how economical it is to supply those factors. What producers often fail to overlook is just how much control they have over some growth factors like sunlight and soil moisture, two things that we often feel powerless to impact.”
Strickler is glad more producers take a keen interest in their pastures.
“I feel kind of like the ugly duckling that has recently become a swan,” he quipped. “My passion is now becoming cool. Especially as people begin to learn just how much untapped potential there is out there for improvement.”
Changing the mindset is never easy but he notes the top consideration for producers is to find ways to reduce their dependence on machinery, he said. Most of this machinery cost revolves around putting up and feeding hay or silage.
“I think developing ways for animals to graze more during the winter are critical to improving profitability,” he said.
Opportunities can also come from working with landlords, particularly for producers who have cropland adjacent to pastures they rent.
“So many landlords are scared to death that 1,300-pound cows are going to turn their ground into concrete and don’t allow their renters to pasture cattle on cropland,” Strickler said. “Apparently, an 80,000-pound combine floats in the air above the ground. I have seen summaries of literally hundreds of grazing trials and most show no difference in subsequent crop yields, some show an increase, only very few show a decrease.”
An untapped opportunity in the cattle business is to use grazed cover crops to reduce hay needs in winter, he said. Instead landlords are hesitant to allow this practice because they see either the cover crop or the grazing as something that will get into their pocketbook instead of being a long-term benefit to them.
When it comes to grass and cover crops they also represent an opportunity for managers to improve their ground, he said. Winter cereals offer benefits for late-fall and early-spring grazing when planted after corn and prior to soybeans, and can really suppress pigweeds. That is a win-win for both a cattle producer and crop producer. Summer annual grasses like sorghum-sudan and cowpeas can provide a lot of pasture in late summer, when most pastures could really use a rest.
Forage sorghums can be used to provide a low quality but very low cost standing winter forage with an exceptionally high carrying capacity in certain areas. Cover crops with a hefty dose of legumes can reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs, especially over time. They can improve infiltration of rainfall and increase soil organic matter to improve water-holding capacity, so there are long-term soil benefits too.
For more information about Cattle U and Trade Show visit www.cattleu.net.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.