Farm income has been highly dependent upon tobacco production in our region for some time. Since the production of tobacco may soon decline, future cash income projections are uncertain prompting closer study of other agriculture enterprises like beef cattle.
Many farms in this region have pasture land and a history of beef cattle production. Unfortunately, many producers are experiencing reduced profitability from under-utilization of potential feed sources, high cost of harvesting and storing grains, and low animal performance per unit of land area. Although confined feeding operations are designed to increase feeding efficiency, high labor requirements must be considered.
Farm labor availability is limiting the opportunity for beef production to become more intensive because many farmers must also spend part of their time working off the farm. So traditional systems that require a high labor input for feed production, storage and feeding often prevent the part-time farmer from expanding his/her operation to a level that has the potential to supplement income lost from tobacco.
Grazing is the cheapest way to feed beef cattle on a cost-per-pound-of-nutrient basis. Extending the grazing season would enable producers to reduce costs and expand production with little or no impact on the environment. Although corn is not a traditional grazing crop, results from several non-replicated on-farm trials in southeast Kentucky suggest that significant increases in animal production from grazing standing mature corn during late fall/early winter are possible and economical. If cattle are used to harvest standing corn, there will be no need for harvesting, storage and feeding of this high-energy feed which should reduce equipment needs, fuel cost, capital investment and labor cost. Grazing can be managed with temporary fencing and properly placed watering systems. This system returns the manure to the land thus promoting nutrient cycling and minimizing potential impacts on ground and surface water. Soil erosion potential is greatly reduced with residue cover that is maintained on the land.
In general, the results of this study indicate that beef cattle grazing standing mature corn can be a profitable option for extending the grazing season in eastern Kentucky without significant impact to surface water quality. During this two year study period, no herd health problems such as founder were observed. Animal performance measured as average daily gain was highly variable ranging from 1.05 to 2.47 lbs. and appeared to be related to grazing efficiency and corn grain yield. Although the relationship between ADG and grazing efficiency in this study was weak (R2=0.143), it does suggest that strip-grazing for maximum grain utilization may limit intake and result in lower cattle weight gain.
Grazing days per head per acre were also highly variable in this study ranging from 211 to 637. This is most likely related to variable grain yield levels and the subjective management decision to terminate grazing in each field. More data will be necessary to evaluate the relationship between corn grain yield and grazing days per head per acre for predictive purposes.
Corn grain yields were lower that expected based on the yield potential of the soils on these four farms. This can be attributed to the lack of no-tillage corn production experience of the producers in this region. Grain crop production training may be needed to assist producers with production details such as setting planters for optimum plant populations, seeding depth and weed control in eastern Kentucky to improve the odds of success. More work is also needed to evaluate corn hybrids suitable for late season grazing. In addition to high grain yield potential, corn hybrids for late season grazing need to produce a strong stalk capable standing and supporting the ear to reduce weathering loss.
Firm conclusions on the profitability of grazing corn are difficult to draw from these results. Clearly, the method of determining costs could lead to very different conclusions. For farms with corn harvesting and storage equipment and an accessible local market, these results would seem to suggest that selling the corn is the best option. On farms where the opportunity cost of the corn is low or approaches cost of production, grazing the corn seems to have merit. This is not a clear-cut economic decision. Yield potential, alternative markets for the corn, alternative uses for the land, and other factors may influence this decision.