Beef Producer June 2013 BP3
Grazing management earns net profit By TERRI QUECK-MATZIE
ASTURE in poor condition can support cattle and sometimes make a profit, but that doesn’t mean better pasture isn’t better. “The environmental effects of pasture improvement are huge,” says Madalene M. Ransom, a Natural Resources Conservation Service economist, “but people don’t always realize the economic benefits.” Ransom and Kevin Ogles, a USDA grazing lands specialist, have collected data that proves just that in work at the East National Technology Support Center in Greensboro, N.C. Ransom and Ogles define poor grazing land as having 50% groundcover with most of the good vegetation already eaten. Their definition of good grazing includes some rotation with 75% groundcover of grass only. Excellent grazing is 95% groundcover consisting of cover, grass, MADALENE litter and clover, together M. RANSOM with excellent rotation practices. Based on case studies and conversations with Extension personnel, Ransom and Ogles show improvements that create excellent pasture conditions, decrease costs over KEVIN time, and increase animal OGLES weights and profits by nearly 50% per pound of animal sold. “Excellent grazing may cost money up front to install,” says Ransom, “but it may be the most profitable by yielding the most benefits.” She says many producers fail to factor in lost profit opportunity.
BEST PASTURE: To create the highest-quality pasture, plan grazing so plants get plenty of recovery time. Ransom and Ogles say a case study conducted on a Virginia ranch found a significant advantage. It showed the gross benefits of improved grazing with 22 cows and one bull on 65 acres of improved pasture totaled $11,672. Deduct from that $3,312 in additional costs, and a net annual benefit of $8,359 was made. The benefits derived from a combination of increased revenues of just more than $7,000 and decreased costs of around $4,500. Benefits and cost savings included: ■ better herd health due to increased clover and improved water sanitation ■ a 50% reduction in fertilizer and lime ■ less purchased hay and less rented land to produce it ■ lower labor and transportation costs for hay ■ a 60% decrease in mowing Revenues rose from these sources: ■ higher weight gain from the highquality forage ■ rancher in case study increased herd from 22 cow-calf pairs to 33 and bought a genetically superior bull due to improved
POOR PASTURE: A poorly managed pasture can make a profit but not as much as a well-managed pasture.
an off-farm income, to call breaking even forage availability ■ calves from the additional cows good enough,” says Ogles. “They’ve covbrought in an extra $5,100, and existing ered their costs. But they can do better calves used the better genetics and better — for themselves and for the land.” Ransom says her vision is for producers forage to create an extra $1,994 in revenue to make pasture improvements Those improvements did, howNet because it makes economic ever, come at a cost each year: Profit sense, in addition to enhancing ■ extra fencing at about $530 the environment. ■ concrete watering troughs “Yes, we want to see enviat $184 ronmental improvements, to ■ herd upgrades at about $1,400 keep the soil from eroding and ■ pasture improvements, such disappearing down rivers and as soil testing, seed and fertilizer, at streams,” she says. about $1,200 “But it’s also good economics and they That still places the annual cost of improvements at $3,312, well below the real- should consider the economics before they make decisions on changing pasture ized financial benefits. “It’s too easy, especially for the smaller management.” Queck-Matzie is from Fontanelle, Iowa. cow-calf producer with 20 to 30 head and
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Grazing pasture by the numbers
EVIN Ogles researches why animal weights might increase and why costs can decrease as pasture management is improved. The USDA grazing lands specialist explains the utilization rate varies as rotational grazing is implemented. Grazing one pasture continuously results in a 30% utilization rate, while breaking the pasture into 12 paddocks, each grazed two to four days at a time, produces a utilization rate of 65%. Rotational grazing also affects pasture productivity. “Digestibility is best when plants are small,” says Ogles, “and goes down as plants mature and become more stemmy. But larger plants yield more mass. The trick is to time grazing to maximize yield and digestibility.” Grazing at the right time is crucial for plant and pasture health. Once grazed to 3 to 4 inches, plants need time for rest and regrowth. Ogles says removing 50% of a plant’s leaves will start to diminish root growth. At 60% of leaf consumption, 50% of root growth ceases. “Plants with better root systems withstand drought better and pull minerals from deeper in the soil,” he says. “Grazing all the time doesn’t give plants a chance to recover. Rotational grazing lets the roots continue to expand, making overall pasture yield higher.”
Rotational grazing also increases manure distribution, thus reducing the need for additional fertilizer. “Animals choose to hang out where there is shade in the heat or where there is water, so that’s where the nutrients concentrate,” says Ogles, adding that beef animals excrete 65% to 90% of nutrients they’ve consumed in manure and urine. “By confining them to a small area at a time, it forces better overall distribution of nutrients.” As for rotational grazing’s effect on infiltration and runoff, Ogles cites a study by USDA and the University of Nebraska that calculates runoff from a 3-inch, 90-minute rain on silt loam soil with a 10% slope. He says excellent pasture with 95% groundcover has 15% to 20% runoff with zero soil loss, while poor pasture with 50% groundcover loses more than 4 tons of soil per acre with 70% runoff. He also says in pasture with grass and plant littler present, water infiltrates the ground at more than 2 inches of water per hour. This compares with poor land, where grass and litter has been removed and infiltration is less than 1 inch per hour. Better plant health also means reduced soil temperatures, keeping needed moisture and microorganisms in the soil.
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