Characterization of winter forage management in North Central Region beef cow-calf operations

Progress report for LNC17-391

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $199,732.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: The Curators of the University of Missouri
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Allison Meyer
University of Missouri
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Project Information


 Minimizing reliance on harvested feeds has long been recognized as a foremost management strategy to enhance both environmental and economic sustainability for beef producers. However, the extent to which North Central Region (NCR) beef cow-calf producers utilize extended grazing, cover crop, and stockpiled forage systems, or supplement cows on harvested winter forage is not well defined. Beef cows in the NCR are traditionally fed harvested forage over winter, but no detailed analysis of winter forage and nutritional management exists. Thus, there is a critical need to fully understand winter nutritional management practices of beef cow-calf producers in the NCR to allow for targeted extension programming and future research focused on improved cow nutrition during the dormant forage season. Furthermore, many cow-calf producers do not take advantage of forage testing, despite the dramatic variation in forage quality caused by species, weather, fertilization, and harvest dates. This project will implement an extensive survey to characterize winter forage management and production demographics of NCR cow-calf producers. In addition, 100 producers will be identified to submit forage samples to characterize relative variance in winter forage quality in the NCR. Compiled results from these 2 objectives will facilitate the initiation of an interactive, online, forage quality benchmarking database incorporating analytical reports from major NCR feed analysis labs, allowing producers to evaluate their forage management and observe regional ranges in forage quality within forage type, ultimately raising awareness of the advantages of forage analysis and allowing producers to make more informed winter nutritional management decisions. This novel database and additional nutritional decision aids developed as part of this project will be used to increase knowledge of proper winter nutrition management and improve management skills of beef cow-calf producers. In-person and online curricula will be developed and implemented by extension personnel in conjunction with a subset of cooperators from the project. Producer involvement in each phase of the project will allow survey tools, decision aides, and extension curricula to be properly vetted through focus groups prior to dissemination to the masses. Ultimately, behavioral changes resulting from this project will improve profitability for beef producers, lead to an improved natural resource base through better forage and grassland management, and enhance quality of life through focus group interaction, active learning opportunities, and improved local economies. This project was not completed and there is no final report.

Project Objectives:

Short-term outcomes of this project will be increased producer knowledge of optimal winter forage management and nutrition of beef cows. As a result, long-term outcomes involve producer improvement of nutritional skill set and forage management behavior, including more frequent forage analysis, keeping more acres in perennial forage, more widespread adoption and use of annual and novel forages, and sustained environmental quality. Enhanced forage management of producers through active learning opportunities will pave the way to increased economic sustainability which will directly improve economic vitality of rural communities and result in a less costly, high-quality protein product available to society.


While it seems apparent that extension programming and other educational opportunities related to forages should result in widespread improvement in profitability and management at the producer level, anecdotal evidence suggests that basic best management practices for forage are widely ignored by producers. To our knowledge, a detailed analysis of nutritional management procedures implemented by cow-calf producers in the NCR has not been conducted, nor are there sufficient benchmarking opportunities regarding these basic practices. This lack of data further inhibits the ability to provide optimal education as it relates to forage management practices.

Cow-calf producers have experienced chronically low and volatile returns. USDA’s Commodity Costs and Returns illustrate that value of production less operating costs for NCR cow-calf producers averaged -$8 per cow from 2008 to 2015, with a standard deviation of $191 per cow per year (USDA, 2016). Additionally, 6 of these 8 years had negative returns. Overall, this indicates high volatility and economic losses on average for cow-calf producers in the NCR. While it cannot be overlooked that there are lots of “lifestyle” cattle farms that may or may not contribute economically to the household, it is likely that producers will not adopt new, or existing, production practices unless their adoption increases net returns. For this reason, we will identify production practices that are both feasible to implement and likely to improve cow-calf profitability.

A variety of winter forage management practices and production systems are available for adoption by cow-calf producers. Such practices may include but are not limited to implementation of stockpiled forages, use of crop residue, and incorporation of cover crops. While many of these practices that focus on productivity, profitability, and natural resource conservation are recommended by university extension services and USDA personnel, an understanding of what practices are currently implemented by producers, and to what extent is not known. Furthermore, the long-term impacts of winter forage management on beef cow enterprise success are largely not understood, in part because nutritional value of standing forages are wildly under-characterized. Characterizing this aspect of beef cow production will allow extension and research personnel to improve program targeting and producer education for long term success of the producers in the NCR.




  1. Forage testing is underutilized by cow-calf producers in the North Central region.
  2. A variety of winter forages are utilized by cow-calf producers in the North Central region, varying especially by location within region, size of producer, and operation goals.
  3. Forage costs affect operation income.
Materials and methods:

Objectives: To characterize winter forage quality and management of NCR beef cow-calf operations, and through this, raise awareness of best management practices that can be implemented to maximize productivity and profitability.

Over 3 years, as series of objectives will be met:

  • winter forage management practices of NCR beef cow-calf producers will be surveyed;
  • representative novel and traditional forages will be collected and characterized for nutritive value;
  • an online forage quality benchmarking database will be launched;
  • nutritional decision aides will be developed; and
  • extension meetings will be conducted, complete with active learning environments.


Producer surveys (Objective 1). An extensive survey will be designed to obtain information from cow-calf producers in the NCR regarding farm and producer demographics, production practices, and forage/feed management early in year 1. This survey will be written with the input of a producer advisory committee assembled with the help of extension professionals across the NCR. The advisory committee/focus group will be used to vet the survey, provide constructive feedback, and identify barriers to survey completion by a wider producer base. It is expected that a minimum of 3000 surveys will be distributed with an effective response rate goal of 25%. This number will allow for an adequate representation of different sizes of operations within each state, yet provide enough statistical power for quality analyses. The Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM) at Iowa State University will assist with survey and questionnaire design, data collection and data processing. The data collection service staff have extensive experience in the development and maintenance of survey samples. Survey data will be collected through both web and mail surveys.

Several advantages of collecting novel primary data through surveys will be realized. First, producer surveys will be useful for describing characteristics of the larger NCR cow-calf operation population. Second, surveys will use consistent and standardized questions, so comparisons among groups can be facilitated. Third, numerous questions will be asked in the surveys. Given the complexities of many human dimensions topics, multiple questions are often necessary to understand concepts under investigation and can improve the reliability and validity of the measuring instrument.

Demographic and production practice questions will be included to ensure the survey sample is representative of the diverse NCR cow-calf operation population. Surveys questions will identify and document the efficacy of specific winter forage management practices producers use. In addition, survey questions will help assess trade- offs of practices on impact (effectiveness) and feasibility (practicality) dimensions. With this primary data in-hand, we will populate and rank practices and develop guidelines or best-management practices that have the most substantial potential to enhance environmental and economic sustainability.

Beyond mere identification of winter forage management practices in the NCR, the gathered information will be utilized in appropriate economic models to collectively meet our specified objectives. In particular, models will be utilized to forecast the likelihood of different producers selecting particular adjustments in production practices. For instance, estimated models will identify the probability that a producer of particular demographics (e.g., age,existence of off-farm income, etc.) with facilities of particular characteristics (e.g., age and type of buildings) will choose to adopt alternative winter forage management practices. Furthermore, models will help identify how producers of different demographics (and operation characteristics) vary in their perception of costs that would be necessary to adjust their operations and adopt alternative production practices.

Forage analysis and forage quality benchmarking database (Objectives 2 and 3). To assess quality of forages used to winter beef cows in the NCR, a random stratified sample of 100 producers who responded to the survey will be selected based on size and location of cow-calf operation for an opportunity to submit 6 forage samples per year (years 1 and 2) representing their typical winter forages utilized (harvested forage, stockpiled pasture or crop residue, or cover crops). All states within the NCR will be represented and the subsample of producers will be reflective of variance in size of operations in each state. Producers will be asked to give the type of forage, forage species represented, and date and method of harvest, then will be asked to estimate the forage quality and nutritive value of these forage stores and give their plans for nutritional management of these forages. These samples will be analyzed for dry matter, crude protein, neutral detergent fiber (negatively correlated to forage intake), acid detergent fiber (negatively correlated to forage digestibility), ash (inorganic matter), and in vitro dry matter digestibility using standard wet-chemistry procedures to characterize relative quality of forages utilized in NCR production systems.

Resulting data will be shared with individual producers as soon as possible to aid them in their winter nutritional management. Additionally, these results will be compiled and compared with producer estimates of forage quality and traditional forage management practices as outlined in their survey responses. These comparisons will not only be shared with producers who submitted samples, but will be used to pioneer an interactive, online benchmarking database of NCR forage analyses that will be maintained on the Iowa Beef Center website. The forage quality benchmarking database will also incorporate analytical reports from major feed analytical labs across the NCR so that users of the database can evaluate benchmarks not just within state, but within crop reporting district. This forage quality benchmarking database will serve to educate producers on regional ranges in forage quality within forage type, raise awareness to the advantages of forage analysis, and allow producers to make more informed decisions about winter nutritional management. Once established, infrastructure will be developed to encourage submission of forage analysis results by producers for continuous updating of the database.

Decision aides (Objective 4). Guidelines must be defined with producer profitability potential considered or adoption will not occur. Data analysis and output from the survey, forage analyses, and the forage quality benchmarking database will guide the development of novel forage management decision aides available for download on the Ag Decision Maker website and promoted through a variety of extension- and popular press- based dissemination avenues. Partial budget decision aides will be built for individual producer use in assessing implementation of examined winter forage management practices. For example, decision aides will demonstrate how improvement in winter forage management over time can justify expenditure of resources. These will be disseminated both online and through active learning in extension workshops. All decision aids will initially be evaluated through a new, separate producer focus group from the one used to vet the survey. This focus group will provide guidance on ease of use and barriers to adoption. Once tools are widely available, active learning opportunities at various extension and regional beef meetings will be evaluated and used to continually enhance the tools as needed. Conversations among users in a group environment will be captured to identify how producers perceive such tools and extension meetings to alter their production practices.

In 2018 and 2019, the survey was developed and tested using advisory producers and survey professionals from the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology. Survey development was led by Rural Sociology PhD student Darren Chapman. Several issues had to be overcome, but it was completed by late 2019. The decision to open it in spring 2020 was moved due to COVID-19 repercussions. Ultimately, it was administered June-August 2020, and included a question about effects of COVID-19. The final survey is attached here. Beef Producers 2020 Survey Final 6-8-20

Research results and discussion:

Our survey was completed over Summer 2020 by Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM). This was a 12-page survey (answered either on paper or online) covering producer demographics, cowherd information and demographics, and winter forage and feed management, as well as the challenges and opportunities associated with winter forage and nutritional management of the cowherd. This was sent to 3500 beef producers from the North Central Region states using a sample that CSSM purchased from Dynata. Approximately 300 producers submitted this survey, and data are currently being analyzed. A subset of producers from this survey response group are being asked to submit winter forage samples and complete interviews for analysis and inclusion in the forage quality online database. Producer survey and interview data will be used to inform the Extension education activities.

Participation Summary
294 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

Presentations to producers and allied industry will be given after survey and forage analysis data collection. This will include the project’s in-person and webinar-based workshop titled “Winter Nutritional Management for Cow-Calf Producers.” These will include demonstration of the forage database and decision aides. Paper and electronic extension publications will be utilized for producers and to "train the trainer," including on the forage database website. Audiences for planned delivery of extension education and outreach programs include farm and ranch operators, as well as industry professionals such as nutritionists, veterinarians, extension educators, and farm business consultants.

Project Activities

Surveys distributed

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
4 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Outreach thus far has included small focus groups to learn about concerns related to winter forage management and a presentation given to SARE personnel at MU.

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.