Promoting sustainable range-livestock enterprises through partnerships which develop producer mentoring networks for best management practices

Final Report for LNC04-250

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $93,006.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Paul Nyren
North Dakota State University Central Grasslands
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Project Information

Summary:

The project began in April 2005. A steering committee comprised of producers and researchers was established to direct the program. Producer awareness of the importance of monitoring rangeland health was increased through workshops, presentations, articles in the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center (CGREC) annual report, field days, and the producer mentor network. The model farm was created and utilized rotational grazing on tame and native pastures as well as crop aftermath grazing, creep feeding, backgrounding with forages and grains raised at CGREC, and steer finishing. An economic analysis of the livestock management section was performed after the cattle were finished in August 2006. The steering committee decided that calves weaned in October 2006 should be backgrounded but not finished. This was due to drought during the summer of 2006 which created budget constraints and concern about the markets. The vital importance of record keeping soon became evident and questions were raised regarding the best management practices to be used in a whole enterprise management system (WEMS). The committee had agreed at the start that leisure time and profitability were crucial to quality of life on a ranch. It became apparent that finishing cattle may increase risk, record keeping, and the need for adequate facilities in winter while decreasing leisure time. However, the project also points to the potential to add value to home-grown feed. Collaboration and cooperation with federal agencies and private producers will continue to be encouraged and utilized as a medium of information dissemination.

Introduction:

Why conduct research on Best Management Practices (BMPs) for livestock operations if producers don’t know how to implement those practices? The North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research Extension Center (CGREC) near Streeter, North Dakota, asked this question. With over 20 years of basic and applied research of livestock, forage, soils, grazing, and resource management, CGREC staff knew they could meet a need that area livestock producers had expressed: a sustainable, implementable, BMP-based management system that would provide profitable results for their operations.

In 2004, CGREC received funds from a USDA Sustainable Research and Education (SARE) grant and from sources administered by the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust to create a model farm. The model farm would be the first of its kind. CGREC dubbed the term “Whole Enterprise Management System” (WEMS) to describe model farm operations, which would address the entire livestock production process, from calving to sale, and would implement best practices gleaned from producers and research studies. The model farm would be used to teach producers how to implement these research- and experience-based best practices in their operations.

Project Objectives:

Short Term Outcomes:
1) Increase producer awareness of the potential economic returns from a properly managed forage base.
2) Assist producers to assess the productive potential of their rangeland through the use of soil maps to determine range sites.
3) Teach producers to set up and maintain a rangeland monitoring program on their land. 4) Assist producers with development of computerized records of livestock inventory, performance, and sales.

Intermediate Outcomes:
1) CGREC will develop a whole enterprise management system (WEMS) to be used for public instruction and viewing.
2) Formation of a producer mentoring network to assist producers with WEMS development on their farms.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Keith Bartholomay
  • Ron Bieber
  • Gene Goven
  • Amanda Hancock
  • Fred Kirschenmann
  • Brian Kreft
  • Greg Lardy
  • Russell Lorenz
  • Stan Melroe
  • Missy Montgomery
  • Bob Patton
  • Jeff Printz
  • Kevin Sedivec
  • William Well

Research

Materials and methods:

Range Monitoring
CGREC hired a facilitator to assist producers in setting up range monitoring systems on their on enterprises. The facilitator developed a producers network so they could share ideas. CGREC selected producer-mentors from among the producers who served on the model farm oversight committee.

The Model Farm Steering Committee
The WEMS that CGREC created during the model farm project addressed the following management questions: When to calve, how to manage forage and pastures, What type of cow to select, whether to creep feed, and how to market the cows.

When to Calve
Calving date has a dramatic effect on the rest of a producer’s operation. The decision about when to calve determines how much feed the producer will need and of what quality the feed must be; what type of facilities are required; and how many workers they will need to hire. For example, if producers calve early, they will need more feed and facilities to calve and shelter cows if the weather is bad. They may need to hire more laborers, and they will need more facilities to shelter cows after calving. Calving early may increase costs for the producer. However, early calves generally weigh more at weaning and can allow the producer more flexibility in marketing the calves. Feedlots want early-born heavy calves so they can capture maximum fed-cattle prices in March and April. Further, calving early may permit more time for a producer’s farming enterprise in the spring. This one decision—when to calve—therefore, affects many other decisions regarding a producer’s operation.

The model farm committee decided to begin calving the first-calf heifers around the last week of March, with cows starting in early April. This calving schedule allows the cows to be rotationally grazed on high-quality pasture for about a month before the breeding season. The cows gain weight rapidly before breeding, which generally results in high pregnancy rates. The April-born calves are weaned in mid-October, just as the nutrient quality of the pastures declines. With the calves weaned, the cows’ nutrient requirements decline markedly. The cows are able to recover some body condition before winter, even on lower quality forages.

How to Manage Forage and Pasture
The model farm committee had many different ideas about pasture management. However, committee members generally agreed that the model farm should maximize the grazing season. To do so, the model farm used a rotationally grazed, tame Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pasture for the research herd. This pasture contained mostly tame, cool-season grasses and alfalfa. The herd was moved to a new pasture every 21 days. In late July, the herd was moved to native pasture and rotationally grazed until the calves were weaned in October.

The committee was also interested in swath-grazing, the practice of grazing windrowed forage, to extend the grazing season. Swath grazing can save producers money by reducing the cost of baling, hauling, and delivering feed to livestock. A swath-grazing study was initiated at CGREC during the model farm project.

What Type of Cows to Select
The type of cow that will work best for an operation depends in part on the producer’s feed resources. Ranches in areas with low precipitation and limited forage supply may do best with a small, low-milking cow, whereas ranches with grain, silage, or abundant forage may want a large, high-milking breed. The model farm committee decided that CGREC should use cows of moderate size and milking ability.

Other tools are available to help select specific cows for an operation. CGREC chose the cows for the model farm project by using a performance-testing and record-keeping computer program (modeled after the CHAPS computer program) that was created by CGREC. The computer program helps producers track milk production by cow. Using this program, CGREC could identify and cull cows that were not performing adequately and were hurting productivity.

Whether to Creep Feed
Research has shown that creep feeding, which allows calves to creep under a barrier to reach higher quality feed that their mothers can’t reach, can improve calf weaning weights and help conserve forage for the mothers. In most situations, it is a cost effective practice, especially with home-grown diets. The model farm committee decided that calves should creep feed for the 30 days prior to weaning to prepare the calves for the stress associated with weaning. The model farm used home-grown diets to creep feed the calves.

How to Market the Cows
Marketing is one key to ranch profitability. With calves, the producer has three options: sell the calf at weaning, background and finish the calf, or winter the calf and run it as a yearling. The size, age, and growth rate of the calf may dictate which path the producer will follow. For example, the producer may want to retain high-growth-rate calves and feed them a high quality ration to realize the best returns. With small or late-born calves, the producer may want to sell them to a stocker operation.

The model farm committee decided to background the calves on the model farm and then finish the steer calves. Following this path allowed the model farm time to gather valuable information about calf performance and efficiencies before deciding which calves to keep and which calves to sell.

The Model Farm Project
The model farm, a grass and beef operation, was located on the Missouri Coteau, 6 miles northwest of Streeter in south-central North Dakota. The project site is typical of rangeland in the Missouri Coteau, which consists of a mosaic of soil types and range sites. Silty and overflow range sites dominate. The area has a continental climate, with an average January temperature of 3º F and an average August temperature of 67 ºF. On average, there are 131 frost-free days per year. Mean annual precipitation is 18 inches, with about 72% of the precipitation occurring during the growing months from May to September.

CGREC selected a herd of 100 four- and five-year-old cows from its main research herd. The cows were rotationally grazed on very high quality pasture for about a month before the breeding season and were calved with the main research herd. First-calf heifers calved in a dry lot with access to barns for shelter. Workers checked them every two to three hours, both day and night. The cows calved in a pasture located close to the main facility. They calved on clean ground with enough area to provide them with some privacy and to prevent cross-mothering. Workers checked these cows about every two hours from dawn until dusk, unless the weather was poor. In that case, workers checked the cows overnight as well. The calving season was limited to about 50 days to keep the calves as uniform in size as possible and to ease labor fatigue.

In each year of the study, calves were vaccinated with 7-way clostridial and 4-way viral vaccinations. The calves were dehorned and the bull calves were castrated. Cows were given a pre-breeding vaccination and dewormed. All cattle were weighed prior to moving them to tame grass pastures around May of each year.

The herd rotationally grazed three tame grass pastures and was moved every 21 days. Bulls were semen-evaluated and introduced to the herd on July 1 of each year of the project. The herd was moved back to the Research Center around the end of July, where they were again weighed and treated with a pour-on insecticide to control horn flies. The herd was then moved to native rotationally-grazed pastures. They were rotated every 21 days until the calves were weaned, in mid-October. After weaning, the cows were moved to aftermath grazing that included barley regrowth, hay fields, and corn stalks. The calves were backgrounded until February and were either sold or finished.

Research results and discussion:

Short Term Outcomes: (Range Monitoring)
1. Between 2005-2007 the facilitator conducted more than 50 on-farm visits to teach producers how to set up and maintain a resource monitoring system on their operation. Assistance was given with plant identification and soils maps of the producer’s operation were provided. During producers’ in-the-field, hands-on training, the facilitator dug small soil pits on different ecological sites to identify soil type. A discussion was then held with producers about how the soil type related to the plant community present. If the community present was significantly different than what was expected for that ecological site, contributing factors (i.e., historic plowing, inappropriate grazing, etc.) were discussed with the producer and steps were taken to correct the problem (i.e., reduction in stocking rate). More than 30 producers joined the range monitoring program and over 200 hours were spent in the field assisting producers with setting up self-sustaining range monitoring sites. Producers picked monitoring methods that were simple, efficient, and repeatable. Discussion about historic and current management practices was held and future management goals were planned in accordance with the producer’s goals and current resource base. Each producer in the program received a complimentary range monitoring kit that they will be able to utilize in following years.

2. Presentations were made at two field days and two winter meetings to 500 producers. In addition, topics were added to the agendas which the facilitator identified as crucial to the success of the range monitoring program and to the development of the model farm concept. These included an indoor presentation on calculating stocking rates and carrying capacity for native range and an outdoor summer presentation on livestock performance on pastures ranging from poor to excellent condition. The outdoor program provided a concrete illustration of how pasture quality may affect the availability of food and nutrients to livestock.

3. Presentations were given at the Society for Range Management International Meeting held in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Mobridge Ag. Expo in Mobridge, South Dakota. 4.The facilitator developed a teaching module and taught a range health course to a high school agriculture class and assisted with teaching range judging. The facilitator also conducted a rangeland monitoring exercise at the North Dakota Range Camp to approximately 65 students.

Accomplishments:
1. A steering committee was assembled who assisted with the producer mentoring committee.
2. A producer member of the steering committee assisted the facilitator to establish a mentoring network with other producers in the area.
3. Developed an economic analysis for the livestock portion of the Model Farm Program and placed it on the CGREC web site at http://www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/streeter/2006report/Model_farm.htm.
4. The introduction to the program was printed in the 2005 CGREC Annual Report. The economic analysis for the livestock portion of the Model Farm was printed in the 2006 CGREC Annual Report and 45,000 copies/each year of the project were distributed in North Dakota, Canada, and to all Land Grant Colleges in the USA.

Two important considerations emerged from this study:
1. The importance of record keeping.
2. The importance of water quantity and quality if maximum use is to be made of crop aftermath and winter grazing.

Research conclusions:

Resource Sustainability:
Range monitoring is one of the most important tools that a producer has to estimate the carrying capacity of his ranch. Without regular monitoring of range production and condition producers can only guess at the proper resource management decisions. During field days the facilitator demonstrated how range condition, ranging from fair to excellent, affects the quality of forage produced for livestock. It was also shown how livestock must expend a lot of energy to procure forage on overgrazed range. The question of cow size and type relates to this issue. The typical animal unit month is described as the amount of forage needed to sustain a 1000 lb cow and her calf. The steering committee and other producers suggest that this concept may need to reflect the fact that the average cow weight is now closer to 1200 lbs. The program pointed to a need for water quality and quantity. These issues will be addressed in the future.

Family Farms and Other Areas:
The committee agreed that quality of life is strongly related to economic prosperity. Producers agreed that economics determine quality of life but the amount of effort needed to sustain that level of prosperity and the enjoyment of the enterprise should also be evaluated. One producer in the program said that the greatest impetus for change “was money and discontent.” The model farm program evaluated the best management practices for a whole enterprise management system which might be compatible with the above goals. Those practices include:
1. The use of cool season pastures for early grazing.
2. Summer grazing on native pastures preferably using a 3-4 pasture rotation grazing system.
3. Swath grazing or aftermath grazing in fall and early winter. The swath should be just enough to feed for one week and keep moving the fence. Proso millet is good for swath grazing.
4. Good fences.
5. A plentiful supply of clean water for the animals will help prolong time on pasture in late fall and early winter.
6. Fertilization of native range should come from manure.
7. A 45-day calving season, early weaning and an efficient program of cattle health care is essential to good and enjoyable management of the livestock enterprise.
8. Weaning and management of calves.
9. Identify where the money is made in the operation.

Records are crucial to achieve this. It became apparent that finishing cattle may increase risk, record keeping, and the need for adequate facilities in winter while decreasing leisure time. However, the project also points to the potential to add value to home-grown feed. It appears that backgrounding cattle on home grown feeds is profitable, however, more information is needed in this area. Creep finishing livestock may be a good method for producers with off-farm work. There is less labor in creep-finishing and finishing livestock is beneficial to the state of North Dakota.

Economic Analysis

2006
The total cow costs for 2005 and 2006 were $561.80 and $664.41, respectively. The total costs account for the need for separate facilities for heifers and bulls.

The steers and calves gained an average of 2.01 lbs/day during the 115-day backgrounding period. The feed cost gain was $0.29/lb. This cost does not include yardage or other expenses.

Calves were backgrounded from October 10, 2005 to February 2, 2006. The charge for yardage was $0.27/hd/day. The average value for the heifers was $800.10 and the average value for the steers was $901.48 on February 2, 2006, the last day of backgrounding.

The results of the finishing phase for 49 steers for 132 days (February 2, 2006 to June 1, 2006. They had an average of 132 days on feed and achieved 3.39 lbs of average daily gain. The feed-only cost of gain was $0.31/lb. Total feed costs for the finishing phase were $139.08/hd. The average yardage cost during this phase was $35.64/hd. The steers had an average live weight of 1280 when they were weighed at CGREC on May 31, 2006. Their average off-truck weight at the slaughterhouse in Dakota City was 1232 lbs, which was a shrink of approximately 3.75%. The average carcass weighed 786 lbs, with a yield of 63.8%. Of the carcasses, 72.5% were graded choice or higher. The steers had a carcass value of $126.92/cwt on the Tyson value-based grid. They returned $963.04/hd.

To completely understand which phase of the livestock operation made money, each phase was evaluated as a separate enterprise. Therefore, the model farm calculated the value of the steers and heifers at weaning and charged the backrounding enterprise that value, because the animals could have been sold after they were weaned. The model farm sold 10 cull cows in November 2005 at a value of $645.36/hd. The enterprise culled 10 cows and kept 10 heifers as replacements. The cost of maintaining the cow herd was $56,197.67. Because only 94 calves were weaned, that cost equates to $597.66/hd. If the calves had been sold at weaning, they would have been worth $9,834.15, after deducting the cost of maintaining the cow herd.

The model farm deducted the cost of the land, facilities or yardage, and labor in all phases of the project. These charges were added back to provide a better understanding of the total return to the model farm operation. Total returns to land, labor, and management were $26,534.29. A more detailed report may be viewed on http://www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/streeter/2006report/Model_farm.htm.

2007
The steering committee decided that calves weaned in October 2006 should be backgrounded but not finished. This was due to drought during the summer of 2006 which created budget constraints and concern about the markets.

The total cow costs for 2006 were $664.41. The total costs account for the need for separate facilities for heifers and bulls. The model farm sold 10 cull cows in November 2006 at a value of $620.85/hd. The enterprise culled 10 cows and kept 10 heifers as replacements. The cost of maintaining the cow herd was $66,441. Because 100 calves were weaned (46 heifers and 54 steers), that cost equates to $664.41/hd. The heifer calves weaned at an average of 545 lbs and sold @ $0.90/lb. Steer calves averaged 577 lbs and sold @$0.95/lb. If 90 calves had been sold at weaning, they would have been worth -$12538.00, after deducting the cost of maintaining the cow herd.

The calves gained an average of 2.60 lbs/day during the 106-day backgrounding period. The feed cost gain was $0.29/lb. Calves were backgrounded from October 16, 2006 to January 30, 2007. The charge for yardage was $0.27/hd/day. The average value for the heifers was $681.70 and the average value for the steers was $824.60 on February 1, 2007, and returned $12,380 to management after the costs of backgrounding and weaning were deducted.

Farmer Adoption

More than 30 producers joined the range monitoring program and over 200 hours were spent in the field assisting producers with setting up self-sustaining range monitoring sites. Producers picked monitoring methods that were simple, efficient, and repeatable. Discussion about historic and current management practices was held and future management goals were planned in accordance with the producer’s goals and current resource base. Each producer in the program received a complimentary range monitoring kit that they will be able to utilize in following years.

Presentations were made at two field days and two winter meetings to 500 producers.

The facilitator also conducted a rangeland monitoring exercise at the North Dakota Range Camp to approximately 65 students.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Hancock, Amanda., and Jeff Printz. 2005. Rangeland Monitoring: Seventeen Indicators of Rangeland Health. NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center 2005 Grass & Beef Research Review. pp.18-20.

Hancock, Amanda. Transitions: Adaptive Rangeland Health Monitoring. NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center 2006 Grass & Beef Research Review. pp.27-28.

Kreft, Brian. 2005. Livestock Management in a Whole-Enterprise Management System. NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center 2005 Grass & Beef Research Review. pp.7-8.

Kreft, Brian., Paul E. Nyren, and Eric Devuyst. 2006. Livestock Management in a Whole-Enterprise Management System. NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center 2006 Grass & Beef Research Review. pp.5-8.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

The issue of record keeping should be addressed. This seemed to create some resistance among producers. Many discussions took place between the committee and the researchers regarding the development of a simpler way to maintain cattle performance and range monitoring records.

Water was trucked to the swath grazing study which was used to prolong the late fall and early winter grazing. The program pointed to a need for water quality and quantity.

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.