Using Grazing Wedges to Match Beef Cattle Nutrient Need with Pasture Resources while Reducing Feed and Fertility Costs

Final Report for LNC09-309

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $148,137.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Dr. William Sexten
University of Missouri - Columbia
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

This project focused on teaching pasture inventory techniques, http://www.grazingbeef.missouri.edu/, designed to match beef cattle nutrient requirements to the forage system while strategically managing input costs, pasture quality and carrying capacity. Four core beef producer groups in northwest, west-central, south-central and central Missouri were developed in cooperation with state and regional Extension specialists. Within each core group, a producer-owned demonstration farm measured forage growth and utilization and document feed and fertilizer input changes due to management changes related to synchronizing animal demand to on-farm forage supplies.

Short-term outcomes included increased social interaction and idea sharing between beef producers while increasing forage and beef animal nutrition knowledge. Intermediate outcomes included improved pasture utilization and efficiency by managing forage inventory in conjunction with animal need and reduced input costs by improving nutrient cycling and forage use efficiency.

Using grazing wedge forage management techniques producers are maintaining forage in a vegetative state with minimal overgrazing, resulting in improved forage quality but also increased forage production due to vegetative growth. Forage quality data demonstrates pastures managed using the grazing wedge can meet or exceed the nutrient requirements of cow-calf operation provided adequate forage dry matter is available. Producers suggested the grazing wedge is best suited to a forage inventory tool rather than a quality management tool in beef production systems due to repeated demonstration of acceptable quality forage in managed grazing systems.

Grazing wedges permit current and future forage needs budgeting. Using the grazing wedge to measure/manage residual forage cover improves pasture sustainability by reducing weed infestation while maintaining the pasture resource. Enhancing pasture recovery will increase profitability due to increased forage production and reduced input expense.

Introduction:

Rising fertilizer, feed and land input costs challenge beef production systems long term economic sustainability. This reduction in profitability increased stakeholder and producer interest in production systems addressing rising input costs. To address this challenge, pasture harvest must be optimized to decrease production costs and improve efficiency. Pasture remains the most economical beef cattle feed, yet in many grazing systems, pasture utilization is less than 40% of potential production. Improving forage utilization promotes efficient land resource use. As land costs increase due to alternative use opportunities optimal use of grazing lands becomes increasingly important.

During periods of increasing input prices, there are three options to improve farm profitability; decrease input costs, improve current input use efficiency or increase end-product value. Cost reduction and improved efficiency are the easiest areas for producers to address as commodity producers are historically price takers focused on reducing production costs. Education effort targeting reduced input costs and improved efficiency appeals to producers enhancing educational opportunities. Producer education designed to reduce input costs and increase resource efficiency matches the NCR-SARE objective of improving farmer profitability.

Project Objectives:

Short-term

  • Demonstrate forage budgeting techniques using grazing wedge in conjunction with forage and cattle management protocols
  • Increase social interaction and idea sharing among core producer group participants
  • Increased cattle and forage management knowledge

 Intermediate-term

  • Increased focus on strategic feed and fertilizer use in forage based beef production systems
  • Increase producer focus from increased forage production to increased forage use efficiency

 Long-term

  • Improved operation profitability
  • Increased forage utilization
  • Reduced or strategically altering feed and fertilizer use

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ted Cunningham
  • Al Decker
  • Joe Horner
  • Jim Humphrey
  • Dr. Robert Kallenbach
  • Robert Kelly
  • Dr. William McClain
  • Ryan Milhollin
  • Wayne Prewitt
  • Gene Schmitz

Research

Materials and methods:

The program focused on a learner-to-learner and co-learner model. One producer within each of the four core producer groups provided a demonstration farm from which forage and animal system models, feed and fertility use data, and management change impacts were reported to other core group producers. Demonstration farms were selected by regional livestock specialists with knowledge of each producer's operation in conjunction with producer willingness to provide information and complete forage production data. Core group meetings, pasture walks and field days facilitated producer reporting program impact and idea sharing.

University of Missouri state and regional extension specialists served as primary technical educators for each core group. State and regional forage, beef cattle nutrition, agronomy, and livestock specialists developed educational programs focused on forage use and grazing wedge implementation for use with core producer groups in addition to fundamental cattle management systems. Educational meetings focused on timely topics relative to environmental conditions, grazing wedge data and forage test results in addition to producer discussion questions.

After training, the regional core groups serve as long-term expertise to a larger, secondary beef producer audience. Core group producers partnered with regional extension specialists to host educational efforts including on-farm demonstrations, tours, pasture walks, and grazing schools. This model developed beef producers into “expert” producers, who can teach new audiences by demonstrating lessons learned from real-life farms. Teaching to a core group setting is ideal as beef producers can share concepts learned combined with personal experiences and ideas with each other.

This project built on lessons learned during the evolution of Missouri’s pasture-based dairying program (funded by SARE grant LNC-00-173, 2000 thru 2002, web address: http://agebb.missouri.edu/dairy/grazing. Missouri pasture-based dairymen increased their pasture utilization resulting in decreased feed and fertilizer input costs, increased returns per acre and improved nutrient cycling. Missouri dairy operations are historically confinement systems and this previous SARE project focused on opportunities to reduce input costs. An early pioneer of the dairy program, Charles Fletcher in Purdy, Missouri, utilized this systems approach to managing pasture and cows and was recently awarded the 2008 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year in the U.S. This systems-based approach allowed Charles to save nearly 30% on feed costs and reduced fertilizer costs by nearly 40%. Building on the dairy-model principles this project will develop a systems approach for reducing beef production costs.

The presentation, Grazing Wedge Use in Beef Production Systems, outlines keys to grazing wedge use. This presentation was used to educate core producer groups on how a grazing wedge can be used for prioritizing feed resources in a grazing system while planning feed and forage needs for fall and winter.

Missouri beef producers were actively involved in the education/demonstration project. Eighty producers were recruited by regional livestock specialists to participate in this program with four producers selected to host demonstration farms. The demonstration farms participated in program activities by taking weekly pasture plate meter readings, entering their data into the grazing wedge calculator, collecting forage samples, modifying management systems according to forage data and hosting the core group participant meetings. Each demonstration farm received a rising plate meter to measure the forage on their farm. Core group participants were asked to commit to attending 2/3 of the educational activities (four of six total workshops) throughout the year. Core group participants were asked to maintain management and grazing records for discussion during educational sessions. Producers sampled pastures and stored forages throughout the year to develop a database of pasture quality and provide examples for use in core group meeting discussions.

Core producer groups traveled to the three University of Missouri Research Centers with a grazing system research and education focus. These trips provided producers opportunities to view alternative forages and grazing management techniques in a research-field setting. Participants historically attend field days at local Research Centers and had not travel to other Centers in the state with different environmental conditions and soil types. These trips provided core-groups with additional personal contacts and educational resources while demonstrating concepts discussed at core-group meetings.

Core producer group participants received an grazing management kit consisting of a: portable fence charger, roll of polywire electric fence, 3:1 geared reel, 50 step-in posts, gate handles, Missouri Grazing Manual and Guide to the Common Forages and Weeds of Pastures. These resources were distributed at the beginning of the grazing season to overcome the equipment barrier to implementation of concepts covered during previous group sessions while exposing participants to alternative materials to improve grazing management.

Research results and discussion:

From 2010 through 2013, 724 forage quality samples were collected from producer pasture and stored forages by 86% of participants. Pasture samples were collected in concert with grazing wedge forage production data submitted by demonstration farms. Project summary data are shown in Forage management and quality. Results from forage quality data indicate producers managing pastures using a grazing wedge can focus management toward providing adequate forage intake rather than focusing on forage quality.

Forage quality parameters (Crude protein and total digestible nutrients) suggest adequate to excessive quality so long as intake is not limiting. Forage intake is not limited so long as residual forage is maintained at 1500 lb of dry matter per acre which coincides with cover required to optimize regrowth photosynthesis and minimize weed pressure in pasture settings.

Year-over-year grazing wedge data summaries from demonstration farms allowed producers to compare pasture productivity and focus forage management and fertilizer inputs on most productive pastures.

Thirty-five core producer group meetings, pasture walks, and field days were held from 2010 through 2013 with 583 producers in attendance. Topics included soil testing, forage physiology and growth, nutrient requirements of beef cattle, grazing management, fence construction, fetal programming, marketing options, forage quality and sampling, winter and summer annual forage options, grazing system design, stockpile preparation and management, stored forage purchase and feeding in addition to novel endophyte tall fescue establishment.

As core-producer groups became familiar with group members’ operations, producer interaction increased expanding discussion beyond planned topics. Producer involvement in educational meetings resulted in experience being applied to biological concepts and broader discussion and questions.

During 2011 and 2012 historic drought conditions emphasized the need for methods to inventory operational forage availability and plan hay and supplements purchases. The grazing wedge offered opportunity to inventory the farm and plan feed accordingly. Core-group meetings during this period focused on forage and management systems to deal with drought and resulting lack of forage. Due to severity of drought producers where evaluating alternative forage sources such as turnips, cereal rye, annual ryegrass, corn stover, corn silage and corn baleage. Meetings focused on using alternative forages to supplement pasture growth and minimize purchased inputs.

Evaluation summary suggests short and intermediate term objectives were accomplished as shown in Objective result summary. Greater than 80% of participants increased forage growth management and cattle nutrient requirement knowledge more than average. Greater than 60% of participants increased interactions with producers in core groups more than average while 85% of participants gathered new ideas to apply to their operation through project participation. Increased forage knowledge resulted in greater changes in fertilizer input use than increased animal nutrient requirement knowledge. Forty-five percent of participants suggested harvest efficiency was more important than increasing forage yield while 55% suggested yield and efficiency were equal.

Research conclusions:

The pre-drought 2010-2011 Cooperator Data Summary document demonstrates producers improved forage management using the grazing wedge. Producers are maintaining forage in a vegetative state with minimal overgrazing, resulting in improved forage quality but also increased forage production due to vegetative growth.

Forage quality data demonstrates pastures managed using the grazing wedge can meet or exceed the nutrient requirements of cow-calf operation provided adequate forage dry matter is available.

Producers suggest the grazing wedge is best suited to a forage inventory tool rather than a quality management tool in beef production systems due to repeated demonstration of acceptable quality forage in managed grazing systems. With acceptable forage quality achieved by maintaining vegetative growth producers can focus management efforts on feed, forage and fertilizer planning. Future use of the grazing wedge in beef systems should focus on forage inventory management.

Grazing wedges were used to budget current and future forage needs. Core producers were able to use growth rate and forage inventory data to develop plans to either purchase or strategically fertilize pastures in order to minimize costs associated with securing additional forages supplies. Using the grazing wedge to measure/manage residual forage cover improves pasture sustainability by reducing weed infestation while maintaining the pasture resource. Enhancing pasture recovery following drought will increase producer profitability due to increased forage production and reduced input expenses.

Farmer Adoption

Jay Heetland, a core producer demonstration farm expanded cow numbers by developing a custom grazing enterprise using grazing wedge and forage analysis data as part of his proposal. The increased nutritional management knowledge gained from participation coupled with on-farm data provided an opportunity to improve operational cash flow while minimizing the risk of investing equity capital to purchase additional cattle to utilize his increased forage resources.

A beef producer in central Missouri commented on the grazing kits received during the project. “We increased cow numbers from 170 to about 230 head in anticipation of buying an additional 80 acres of pasture early in 2013. The sale didn’t occur at the anticipated time, but using the temporary fencing and moving the cattle more frequently on existing acres, we were able to maintain the additional cows through the summer of 2013 without feeding hay, buying additional feed or selling cows to reduce numbers. Without the fencing material, we would have run out of feed.”

Another core group participant reported “A big thank you is in order for the fencing items that were part of your SARE grant. We put those items into service as we are moving from a MIG to a Mob grazing system and they have come in handy.”

Matthew Job adopted a managed grazing system on his beef and horse operation and as a result of core group participation submitted a SARE Farmer and Rancher Grant entitled, “Alfalfa hay and fresh fodder as alternative feed supplements for cattle and horses grazing fescue pasture.”

Denney Pogue, a core producer demonstration farm was highlighted in the November 29, 2013 issue of Missouri Farmer Today discussing his use of the grazing wedge in his forage system management. http://www.missourifarmertoday.com/news/livestock/system-aids-producers-in-forage-management/article_24603122-57a5-11e3-8b34-001a4bcf887a.html

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The project was Outreach and Extension focused as a result the demonstration farm data was presented at 35 non-core producer group Extension meetings and field days with 1,947 attendees. The grazing wedge and producer grazing data was used as a demonstration of a forage inventory and feed budgeting tool to address forage shortages the demonstration farms were documenting.

Below are professional meeting abstracts and field day proceedings where grazing wedge use was discussed outside the core-producer groups.

Humphrey, J. R. Kelley, W. Sexten 2013. North Missouri Grazing Group Supports Forage and Beef Producers Thru 2012 Drought and Beyond. Joint Council Extension Professionals. Meeting abstract.

Sexten, W.J. Grazing Wedge Use In Beef Production Systems. November 1, 2012. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Farmer’s Forum. Columbia, MO. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yb0E4WpZ_q8

Sexten, W. J. 2011. Using Grazing Wedges to Inventory Forage Supplies. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report. Novelty, MO.

Sexten, W. J. 2011. Using Grazing Wedges in Beef Production Systems. Mid-Missouri Grazing Conference. Jefferson City, MO.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Methods and management practices to optimize excess forage and crop residues

  • Harvest
  • Storage
  • Feeding

Long term impact of converting pasture and hay land to row crops

Information Products

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.