“I am a grass farmer first and a cattle rancher second.”
We have all seen our feed bills (like many other inputs) on the rise lately. Feed costs typically account for the greatest percentage of total enterprise costs in a cow-calf operation. Grazing, as the primary feed source, can help reduce costs for your operation. So the question is, how do we get the most out of our forages?
A few years ago, I was visiting with a cattleman and something he said stuck with me. “I am a grass farmer first and a cattle rancher second.” There is often talk amongst producers about fertilizing, planting, and forage types, but sometimes we get caught up in talking about how to grow more grass and overlook utilizing the grass in the most efficient manner. Why not use what you have first before spending money on something that may not be necessary. Now I’m not saying there would not be a need for supplementation, but the amount required can be reduced. It’s kind of like making the decision to stay home and cook the groceries you’ve already bought, rather than spend money going to a restaurant. It may take a little more planning and management, but overall can reduce your costs.
The first step is management. We often hear about pasture management, but let’s talk about grazing management and how to get the most out of your pastures. There are a few factors to consider if you are looking to achieve optimal forage utilization and animal performance:
How close to graze?
This decision will have the greatest impact on pasture and animal productivity. Leave adequate leaf mass after grazing. This can reduce the recovery time and maximize regrowth. The ground cover can also improve the soil’s moisture holding capacity. The recommended stubble height depends on the forage variety. Not all forages are the same. For example, Bahiagrass can be grazed to 2 inches, while tall, bunch grasses should be grazed to a taller stubble height. (See Impact of Grazing Methods on Forage and Cattle Production, Table 2 for stubble height chart).
Stocking rate is the most critical component in grazing management. This is the number of animal units grazing a given area of land (e.g. – # of animals/acre). This rate is based off of grazable acres. Areas with excess brush or trees, surface water, and/or ranch roads should be excluded when calculating the amount of land suitable for grazing. The stocking rate must match the pasture’s carrying capacity, animal nutrient demand, forage availability, season, and grazing method. Overstocked pastures can lead to overgrazing. This can result in slow regrowth, decreased root systems, increased weeds, and poor stands, not to mention reduced animal performance. There’s a correlation between stocking rate and animal performance. Too low of a stocking rate would leave the forages underutilized which is not economical. Too high of a stocking rate would result in overgrazing and low animal gain. The goal is to determine the zone where the optimum output per individual animal gain and output per unit of land area intersect.
Grazing Method: Continuous or rotational grazing?
Continuous grazing is a method where the cattle have unrestricted and uninterrupted access to a specific piece of land throughout the grazing season. Cattle have free access to selectively graze. They choose how often and how close to graze a plant. It does not allow for the pasture to rest and may not allow adequate residual leaf and carbohydrate reserves for pasture regrowth. However, this method requires less input costs and management decisions compared to rotational grazing.
Rotational grazing is when cattle are rotated between two or more sections of the pasture, called paddocks. The producer manages the time period of grazing and pasture recovery. This can still lead to overgrazing if not done correctly. Providing adequate pasture recovery time is crucial to productivity. When grazed at the proper stocking rate and rotating at ideal stubble height, rotational grazing helps with pasture persistence. The producer can rotate cattle to graze the forage when the nutritive value is at its peak. Rotational grazing requires more labor and management, as well as more initial investments, such as fencing and water sources. Despite those factors, rotational grazing has many benefits. This grazing method can result in improved pasture longevity, increased stocking rate, increased grazing efficiency, and more uniform distribution of excreta by the cattle. It is important to note that grazing and pasture rest period will vary depending on the season.
Grazing management can influence animal performance, pasture performance, and economic returns. This tool can lead to increased forage yield and quality, stand longevity, and grazing efficiency. Choice of grazing management also affects the animal’s milk and meat production, weight gain, and can reduce feed costs. There is not a one-size fits all management program. Tracking information throughout the grazing season can help you evaluate your grazing plan and fine tune your plan for optimal forage utilization and animal performance.
Today is a great day to start being a “Grass Farmer First!”
For more information:
Grazing Management Concepts and Practices: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/AG160
Impact of Grazing Methods on Forage and Cattle Production: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/AG268
UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County Blogs: https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/hillsboroughco/