Development of a novel grazing system for sustainability of a cow-calf operation

Final Report for FS09-238

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Jason Carter
VA Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


The purpose of this project was to investigate implementation of alternative forages to extend grazing options for a beef cattle operation and reduce the dependency on corn production to meet year round feed requirements. Teff was planted for summer grazing of weaned fall calves to first reduce the stocking density of existing cool season perennial grass pastures and second to provide high quality grazing for growing calves in lieu of normal cool season perennial grasses in their “summer slump”. The Teff was managed for hay after the first 30 days to allow for root development and thereupon grazed by weaned calves. The performance of those calves was compared to weaned calves from the same herd grazing traditional pasture. The results of the project were that Teff, while a high quality forage, was too expensive and climatically sensitive to be profitable for beef cattle grazing in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The project was very worthwhile however and demonstrated that despite the high investment of time and resources to grow Teff there may be potential to grow it purely as a hay crop for profit.


Materials and methods:

This project began in May of 2009 starting with the weaning of a group of 95 fall born 2008 beef calves. The intent was to graze the calves beginning 2 weeks post weaning on a field of Teff grass for half the group and compare weight gains and overall health to the other half grazed on conventional fescue based pasture. The 23 acre field chosen for the Teff stand was harvested in barley baleage in March of 2009 and left fallow until May 31, 2009. At that time chemical herbicide and fertilizers were applied to eliminate the standing broadleaf weed population as well as meet soil test recommendations for establishing cereal grains. This recommendation was chosen over grass establishment on the recommendation of the Virginia Tech Crop and Soil Science Extension as Teff is more closely a cereal crop that forage grass.

The intent had been to plant the Teff seed by mid-May of 2009 with the expectation that soil temperatures would have warmed adequately for good germination, frost risk would have passed and soil moisture conditions would have been adequate. However, the spring of 2009 was exceptionally cool and it was not until after Labor Day that soil temperatures elevated above 58°F. Teff was planted on June 5, 2009 in the entire 23 acre field after further soil preparation utilizing a Great Plains Turbo Till vertical tillage implement for minimal soil disturbance but improve soil to Teff seed contact. In the interim between barley harvest and Teff planting, a pipeline and frost free hydrant were installed in the field to accommodate water availability for the calves during the grazing season. A portable frost free fountain was modified to allow movement of the water throughout the paddocks in the rotational system as well.

The Teff grew relatively slowly in June 2009 and experienced significant competition from weeds. There are no herbicides labeled for Teff and this prohibited further weed control along with expense. The Teff was bush hogged to curb weed growth and simulate hay cutting in late June and test calves were turned in to graze 3 weeks later in an eight paddock rotational system. This process was repeated the following year in 2010 with a few notable differences. In 2010, the number of weaned calves in the test group was increased from 45 to 60 as the Teff growth rate was faster than the cattle could utilize it at the 2009 stocking density. Also, to allow for the increased group size, the number of rotational paddocks was decreased to six. The 2010 growing season was abnormally dry and the Teff had to be re-planted once in early July as less than 10% of the Teff germinated.

The winter “salad bar” portion of this project proposal was never attempted. This was primarily due to the unanticipated expense of the Teff portion of the project. We notably underestimated the cost of chemical herbicides, fertilizer and Teff seed for establishment of the weaned calf grazing field in the first year. With the priority of this project being to seek alternatives for managing the “summer slump” of predominant cool season forages, we felt it best to focus energy and fiancés on maintaining this portion of the project proposal.

Research results and discussion:

The results of the two summers work establishing and comparing calf growth on Teff were enlightening. In 2009, the gains experienced by the test and control groups of calves were similar and around one pound per day. This number was acceptable, but the performance on the Teff was not economical. The calf performance on the Teff was likewise disappointing considering the extraordinary nutrient analysis values of greater that 70% TDN and 16% Crude Protein for the vegetative Teff sampled throughout the summer of 2009. In the summer of 2010, the results were again similar for comparative gain, with the control calves actually outperforming the test calves on average daily gain 2.1 to 1.8 pounds per day.

The most interesting results of the two year trial however were experience related to the establishment of Teff and anecdotal observations of other calf performance indicators. First, it has been determined that soil temperature, preparation and moisture are critical for successful Teff establishment. Minimal tillage is not sufficient for proper soil to seed contact for good Teff germination. In fact, even barley stubble residue is more vegetative cover than Teff can tolerate. Ultimately, the re-plant of the Teff in 2010 was done in a seed bed conventionally prepared with offset disc and firm packing. Additionally the availability of herbicides labeled for Teff does not exist, so post emergence broadleaf weed control is very difficult. This underscores the importance of successful elimination of weeds after prior crop removal and conventional tillage for Teff establishment to improve germination rate and lessen growth inhibition from weed competition. Secondly, there was noticeable metabolic vigor associated with test grazing calves during each of the trials. It cannot be positively associated with the properties of the Teff itself, but observed benefits included zero cases of pinkeye either year and 40% less water consumption by calves grazing the Teff. Endophyte toxicity and the associate issues with decreased heat abatement are well documented with Tall Fescue. However the test calves were allowed zero shade during the course of the grazing study and still were observed standing and grazing during all hours of the day as opposed to the control calves that tended to reduce grazing activity significantly during the afternoon hours. While weight gain comparisons did not necessarily favor the Teff, the decreased metabolic stress that was seemingly associated with being on the Teff was interesting to observe.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The following is an article describing the program and information disseminated about this project to over 70 farmers on July 28, 2010.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension / VFGC Valley Forage Tour was held on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at Hunter Ridge Farm in Swoope, VA. Operated by Joe Shomo and Sam Leonard, Hunter Ridge Farm is a commercial beef cow/calf operation located in southwestern Augusta County. The central theme of the meeting was the production and management of warm season grasses with the emphasis on teff production.

Hunter Ridge Farm is in its second year of producing teff for hay and a grazing crop for weaned beef calves. Although the crop had not been grazed in 2010, in 2009, the calves that rotationally grazed teff averaged a 30% higher average daily gain compared to calves grazing fescue/orchardgrass pastures. The project at Hunter Ridge Farm is a cooperative effort with Virginia Cooperative Extension to investigate the value of Teff as starter forage for weaned calves during a time when traditional cool season perennials enter a “summer slump”. From a nutritional aspect, Teff holds tremendous potential as a forage and hay feed. During the 2009 production season, forage analyses of Teff averaged over 66% Total Digestible Nutrients and 16% Crude Protein. These values will meet the needs of not only weaned calves, but fall calving cows in late pregnancy or early lactation as well. Forty eight weaned steer calves averaging 505 lbs. were grazed on 23 acres of Teff in 2009 for 60 days following a three week pre-conditioning that included fence line weaning. A control group of 48 steers were grazed across the fence in traditional fescue pasture on 90 acres during the same time frame. In addition to the 30% advantage in average daily gain for the test steers, other observations included the following. There was significantly lower than expected water consumption by the test steers. Steers grazing Teff drank an average of 7 gallons of water/head/day compared to the expected average of around 10 gallons per/head/day with an average temperature of 84°F. The water consumption, coupled with no shade for the predominantly black Angus calves, indicates there may be a heat abatement advantage for Teff over traditional endophyte infected Fescue. Also, a number of pinkeye cases were observed in the control steers on traditional pasture versus none in the steers grazing Teff. While there is certainly no pinkeye “cures” found in Teff, an assumption that has been made is that grazing Teff has allowed the steer calves to remain in a low stress and better metabolic state of being. Therefore, these calves natural immune defenses were more effective to combat environmental stressors such as pinkeye virus carrying flies.

Dr. Ozzie Abaye, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech, started the meeting by discussing the history of teff and discussing its merits as both and hay and grazing crop. Jason Carter, Extension Agent, Livestock, Augusta County reviewed the steps taken and the trials and tribulations in establishing the beautiful crop of teff at Hunter Ridge Farm. He discussed the results of the grazing trial conducted last year and plans for this year. Blox Daugherty from Dow AgroSciences discussed the herbicide trials that he is conducting with various products for the post-emergence control of broadleaf weeds in teff. He showed some very interesting visual results in the on-farm test plots. After a very delicious dinner prepared by Betty and J.R. Coleman, Dr. Chris Teutsch, Extension Agronomy Specialist, Virginia Tech Southern Piedmont AREC talked to the crowd about annual and perennial warm season grass and how they fit in various grazing programs. Dr. Teutsch also discussed the dangers of high nitrates in drought stressed forages and how to test for high nitrates.

In conclusion, the evening at Hunter Ridge Farm was successful and educational for everyone in attendance. The lessons learned about Teff are, to this point in the project at Hunter Ridge, that establishing Teff is still a work in progress for the Shenandoah Valley where dry weather is the norm in late May through mid-June and effective seed bed preparation must include some conventional tillage. From a grazing perspective, the value of Teff may hold promise, but the economics of growing Teff compared to cattle efficiencies must be further compared. Tried and true sound management practices of rotational grazing and multiple forage varieties in the grazing operation were underscored during this event. Whether it is Teff, millet, sorghum or crabgrass, there is value in utilizing warm season annuals in a grazing operation to strengthen the grazing and haying options for the livestock operation.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

There are no plans to either repeat this study or modify it for further research. However if the project could be done again perhaps implementation of another summer annual variety of forage would be more advantageous. We learned that Teff does indeed have significant nutritive value both as a forage and hay. We feel that Teff has potential as a profitable forage alternative for beef cattle, but maybe under a different scenario and certainly under warmer general climatic conditions to get the Teff planted in a more timely fashion. There is some significance maybe in the observations of the calves and decreased water consumption. This was not scientifically evaluated but certainly may further substantiate the role of endophytes in heat abatement issues.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.