Extending grazing days will keep profits within reach
Cow/calf producers can significantly reduce costs by extending the grazing season, delaying feeding of purchased feeds. Common sense and research both tell us cattle are most profitable when they are harvesting their own feed. Allowing cattle to graze into late fall and early winter is crucial to reducing costs. Even with lowering commodity prices, grazing is still the cheapest way to feed cows. Stockpiled forages, cover crop forages, and grazing crop residue are all options for extending the grazing season.
Cool season forages, especially fescue, are excellent candidates for stockpiling. While fescue may garner a bad reputation for endophyte issues and poor production in the summer months, fall is a time to shine for fescue. Cool temperatures in the fall negate complications with elevated body temperatures when cattle are consuming endophyte infected fescue. Re-growth in the fall is primarily green leaf tissue and the plant is not putting on seadheads which are a feared, concentrated source of the endophyte.
The stockpiling process starts with designating pastures that will be used for stockpiling. Cattle need to be removed from the selected pastures in early to mid-August. Applying supplemental nitrogen in August has proven beneficial to yields. When pastures were allowed to stockpile until Dec. 1, applying 50 pounds of actual N per acre in early to mid-August can add approximately 25 lbs. DM per lb. of N added or 1,250 lbs. of DM / acre.
Grazing management will greatly influence the ability to utilize stockpiled forages. Strip grazing is common and the most recommended practice. Strip grazing will allow close to a 70% utilization of the available forage, a 30% improvement over continuous grazing. Stockpiling fescue for 90-100 days will typically yield approximately 2000 lbs. DM per acre. Assuming a 1400 lb. cow eats 3% her body weight in DM, the cow would eat 42 lbs. DM per day. Using strip grazing, an acre of stockpiled fescue could support a cow for 33 days. Adding 50 lbs. of N can gain an extra 21 days of grazing under the same management and stocking rate.
Cover crops for additional forage
Illinois is blessed with very fertile farmland. High land prices, soil health benefits, and the ability to grow more feed are incentives to add cover crops to a diversified farming operation. Using cover crops following cash crop production for added forage is one of the best opportunities for IL cattlemen to lower production costs. There are numerous options for farmers depending on their crop rotation.
A popular choice after corn silage or in idle wheat ground is seeding a mixture of oats and turnips. Two bushel of oats and 4 lbs. of turnips per acre will give a nice stand and offer around 3 to 4 tons of DM per acre. Annual Ryegrass is another cover crop that needs to be planted in late summer. Yields can be around 2 DM tons/acre. Annual Ryegrass will overwinter and will require good management in the spring to achieve termination of the stand. Oats and turnips will winterkill.
Cereal rye, triticale, and mixes including them are good options for producers looking to provide forage possibilities in the early spring. Many will chop and bag these forages prior to planting beans in the spring. Weather can make this challenging; however yields of up to 4 dry tons per acre can be accomplished. As with any crop there will be variation in success depending on seed choice, weather, and management. Start a discussion with your seed dealer and investigate your options for cover crops.
The cost of grazing cornstalks is low; first because the cows graze and harvest their own feed and second, because all costs to produce the plant for grain production are attributed to the row-crop operation. Even with the cost of a temporary fence (which many farmers already have) and water, grazing cornstalks is more economical than feeding hay.
Cattle eat the more digestible and higher protein portions first. Therefore, a good mineral is probably the only supplementation needed for the first month unless the herd includes fall-calving cows or stocker calves.
Grazing stalks can also have benefits for subsequent crops. Cows grazing cornstalks for 60 days will remove approximately 30 to 40 percent of the residue. Residue buildup has been a well-documented problem in many corn-on-corn fields with new hybrids. Cows deposit nutrients in the form of manure back on the field. As they graze, they reduce volunteer corn, considered a weed and a yield-robber in soybean fields.
Using an equation developed at the University of Nebraska, a field that averages 170 bushels per acre yields 2,430 pounds of leaf and husk. Only 50 percent of the 2,430 pounds is available for the animal; the rest is trampled or lost in weathering. Thus, 1,215 pounds of DM husk and leaf per acre are available as feed.
A 1400-pound cow consumes 1,050 pounds of DM per month. At 170 bushels an acre, approximately 1 acre of cornstalks are needed to feed the cow for 30 days. Feed quality and nutrition will decline as the residue breaks down, so to feed the same cow on cornstalks for 60 days, 2 to 3 acres would be needed.
Producers focused on keeping costs low will be the most profitable. Historically, the cow/calf business has been a break-even business. However, data has shown that high return producers are very focused on minimizing feed costs. Thus, extending the grazing season with stockpiled forages, cover crops, and crop residues are crucial to being in the high return category.