Low-Input Beef Cattle Systems of Production

Final Report for LNC93-054

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1993: $70,686.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $81,750.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Terry Klopfenstein
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information

Summary:

This research project involves growing-finishing beef systems and the interaction with corn tillage system. Ridge-till corn was developed and compared to conventional tillage as a source of cornstalks for wintering beef calves. Tillage system had little effect on calf growth. There was greater trampling in the furrows than in the conventional fields and therefore fewer grazing days. The calves did not affect the ridges. Corn production during the following cropping seasons was measured on grazed and ungrazed areas. Grazing did not impact corn production on either ridge-till or conventional systems. After stalk grazing, the calves were fed alfalfa hay until grass was available. The cattle grazed eight different pasture systems until early September or early November when they entered the feedlot for finishing on high grain diets. Red clover interseeded into smooth brome increased cattle gains and eliminated the need for nitrogen fertilization during one year but stands could not be maintained. Rotating the cattle from brome to warm-season grass or to Sandhills range increased cattle gains. Allowing the cattle to graze brome regrowth, turnips, cornstalks, and rye during the fall increased the weight of the cattle entering the feedlot. Feedlot performance of the cattle was measured and economics calculated for the eight grazing systems. Systems with greatest forage gains were the most economical.

Project Objectives:

1. Develop economical, forage based, low-input-cost beef growing finishing systems to enhance the environment.

2. Determine the effects of cattle grazing cornstalks on ridge tillage system and ridge tillage system on cattle grazing stalks.

3. Transmit information on low input, economical beef systems to cattle producers through field days, reports and a multi-state symposium.

Research

Materials and methods:

Objective 1. One hundred ninety two weanling calves were randomly allotted to treatments on December 3, 1993. The calves on all treatments grazed cornstalks (see Objective 2) until March 1, 1994. They were supplemented with high quality alfalfa hay plus a vitamin and mineral supplement. From March 1 until May 1, the calves received average quality alfalfa hay.

On May 1, the cattle were placed on their summer grazing treatments:

1. Continuous brome grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

2. Rotational brome grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

3. Rotational red clover/brome grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

4. Brome/warm-season grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

5. Brome/Sandhills range grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

6. Sandhills range grazing to September 9 then to feedlot.

7. Continuous brome grazing to November 11 then to feedlot.

8. Brome/warm season grazing to November 11 then to feedlot.

The brome was previously established pastures fertilized with 80 lb nitrogen per acre and sprayed in late April with 2, 4-D. The red clover was frost seeded into similar brome pastures which were neither fertilized nor sprayed. A four year rotation of red clover had been previously established so all four years of the rotation were represented. The first year was the seeding year, the second and third were primary red clover growth years and the fourth was a brome recovery, weed control, fertilization year. The warm-season grass was a fourth year seeding of switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass. The Sandhills range was located 18 miles north of North Platte, NE. About ½ the range had not been tilled, the other ½ had been returned to range without reseeding (go-back range). Cattle were rotated to warm-season and Sandhills pastures on June 13. Cattle were rotated among three pastures while on the warm-season pastures and between two pastures on the Sandhills range. Cattle in the late removal treatments grazed brome regrowth until October 17 when they were moved to turnips and rye seeded into wheat stubble.

In 1994, medium framed, British-breed steers (473 lb) were purchased in the fall, processed and allowed a 28-day weaning and acclimation period. Steers were then assigned to a low-input wintering system consisting of grazing irrigated cornstalks from November 18, 1994 to February 17, 1995. Following cornstalk grazing, steers were fed alfalfa hay and a mineral supplement ad libitum until May 5, 1995. This diet allowed for some growth (.86 lb/day) and maintained animal health while keeping costs to a minimum.

On May 5, 1995, steers were implanted with Compudose, and randomly assigned to one of eight forage grazing systems (Table 1): (1) continuous bromegrass until August 10, (2) rotational bromegrass until August 10, (3) rotational red clover inter-seeded in bromegrass until August 10, (4) bromegrass or warm-season grasses until August 25, (5) bromegrass or native Sandhills range until September 13, (6) native Sandhills range until September 7, (7) bromegrass or native Sandhills range until September 7 with bromegrass, rye or cornstalk grazing until November 17, (8) bromegrass until September 7 with bromegrass, rye or cornstalk grazing until November 17. Bromegrass, warm- season grass, rye, and cornstalk pastures were located at the University of Nebraska ARDC, Ithaca location. Native Sandhills range pasture was located approximately 20 miles north of North Platte, Nebraska.

Cattle in the red clover/bromegrass system (5) grazed a seven-paddock rotation. Six paddocks were in their first year following red clover seeding. The seventh paddock, a monoculture of bromegrass, was twice the size of the other paddocks, and was used as an area for animals to graze while allowing appropriate regrowth of the red clover/bromegrass paddocks. Cattle were rotated among paddocks every 5 days. Cattle in the rotational bromegrass system (2) served as the control group for the red clover/bromegrass system with paddock size, paddock number and rotation time the same as the red clover/bromegrass system.

Cattle in systems using a combination of forages (excluding red clover/bromegrass) were rotated based upon forage quality and quantity to assure optimum forage availability at all times. Warm-season grass pastures were a mix of big and little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and sideoats grama. Grazing of warm-season grass pastures began on June 12, 1995. Rye was drilled into wheat stubble in early August. Cornstalks were made available following the harvest of high-moisture corn. Cattle grazing cornstalks received 1.75 lb/head/day of a protein supplement. Grazing of rye and cornstalks began on October 12.

Following grazing, steers were implanted with Revalor and fed a 93% concentrate diet during the finishing period. Length of feeding periods averaged 107, 79, and 61 d for grazing treatments ending in August, September, and November, respectively. Steers were adjusted to the final diet using four adaptation diets containing 45, 35, 25, and 15% (DM basis) forage (alfalfa hay and corn silage mixture) and were fed for 3, 4, 7, and 7 days, respectively. The final diet contained 52.5% dry rolled corn, 35% corn gluten feed, 5% supplement, 7.5% alfalfa hay and was formulated (DM basis) to contain 12% CP, .7% calcium, .35% phosphorus, .7% potassium, 25 g/ton Rumensin, and 10 g/ton Tylan. Cattle from each forage system were fed in two pens of 12 head each.

Initial and final weights for each stage of the system were the average of two weights taken on consecutive days following a three-day feeding of a 50% alfalfa hay and 50% corn silage diet (DM basis). Intakes during these periods were limited to 2% (DM) of body weight. Final weights were estimated from hot carcass weight using a 62% dressing percentage. Carcass measurements included hot carcass weight, liver abscess score, fat thickness, quality grade, and yield grade.

Breakeven cost was used as the measure of success of each system and included all input costs. Feedlot pen was used as the observation unit for statistical analysis. Breakeven correlation coefficients (r) for amount of gain achieved during the summer grazing, combined summer and fall grazing, and finishing periods were determined to evaluate which period, within each system, had the most influence on breakeven cost.

Objective 2. A 100 acre cornfield was divided into three replicate areas. One half of each area was developed into ridge-till corn during the 1992 growing season. The other half remained in a disk-plant system. The tillage practices were maintained during the 1993, 1994 and 1995 growing seasons and grazing treatments were applied during the fall of 1993 and 1994. Weanling calves (Objective 1) were allotted to either ridge till or conventional stalks.

Research results and discussion:

Cattle Performance – 1993 to 1994.

The 1994 grazing season was slightly cooler than normal. Rainfall was lower than normal but well distributed and with excellent subsoil moisture going into the grazing season, brome growth was slightly better than normal. Late summer and fall were relatively dry which limited fall brome regrowth and establishment and growth of the turnips and rye.

The red clover seedings were successful the first two years, probably because of abundant moisture during the spring. The third spring had less moisture and seeding was a failure. In addition, the first year seeding (1992) did not survive the winter of ’93/’94, possibly because of root diseases following a cool moist summer of 1993. Therefore, the clover/brome treatment had less red clover than desired. Our goal was to have 50% clover in three of four pastures. We accomplished that in only one of the four pastures. The other two pastures had minimal red cover.

Cattle grazing the continuous brome to September 9 (1.63 lb/day) and to November 11 (1.69 lb/day) gained somewhat better than these treatments have produced in previous years (1.3 – 1.5 lb/day). Rotational grazing of brome (seven pastures, five days on each) had essentially no effect on gains (1.71 lb/day).

The rotational brome served as the control for the red clover/brome. Even though the red clover seeding was less effective than desired, the cattle gained more on this treatment than continuous brome (1.87 vs 1.71 lb/day). This is encouraging and suggests that good cattle gains may be possible with good red cover seedings. In addition to providing better quality forage for the cattle, the red clover eliminates the need for nitrogen fertilization.

Rotating cattle to warm-season grass increased cattle gains (1.86 vs 1.63 lb/day). This emphasizes the value of complementing the cool-season grass (brome) with the warm-season grass.

Moving the cattle to Sandhills range gave better gains than continuous brome (1.94 vs 1.63 lb/day). Gains were similar between cattle moved directly to range (1.99 lb/day) and those moved from brome to range on June 13 (1.94 lb/day).

Late removal of cattle from pasture (November 11) was less successful than expected. The cattle on continuous brome gained 1.69 lb/day for the entire season and the brome/warm-season cattle gained 1.74 lb/day. Gain during the 63 day fall grazing season was only .85 lb/day. This emphasizes the need to develop better forage production strategies for grazing during the fall months.

Differences among treatments for daily gain, dry matter intake, and feed efficiency varied (Table 1). Cattle with the lowest summer daily gains tended (P=.22) to have the lowest finishing daily gains (treatments 3, 7, and 8). No differences were noted in carcass measurements (fat thickness, yield grade, or quality grade) among treatments indicating that all cattle were finished to a similar endpoint.

Economics

Cattle on the red clover/bromegrass treatment (5), bromegrass and Sandhills range (treatment 1) or only Sandhills range (treatment 2) had the most desirable breakeven costs (Table 2). Cattle grazing continuous bromegrass and cattle in the November removal systems had the least desirable breakeven costs. Breakeven cost correlation coefficients (r) for summer gain, the combined summer and fall gain, feedlot gain, and feedlot efficiency were -.76 (P<.001), -.42 (P<.10), -.80 (P<.001), and -.58 (P<.02), respectively, indicating that summer grazing gain and feedlot gain had the most effect on breakeven cost. Gains for cattle on the red clover/bromegrass treatment were lower than anticipated. However, cattle had access to red clover approximately « of the grazing time due to the variable amount of red clover present. Therefore, if red clover was available in paddocks as planned, gains should have been higher. Transporting cattle to warm season grasses to optimize forage quality rather that developing warm season pastures is economical as evidenced by the Sandhills range treatments (Treatments 1 & 2). The stress and body weight shrink associated with transporting animals did not negatively influence weight gain. The transportation costs associated with the Sandhills range treatments would increase breakeven cost by $.91/100 lb resulting in no change in ranking of breakeven costs among treatments. Breakeven values at slaughter reflect the final weight of each system. Further, the final weight for each system was influenced by the amount of gain achieved during the summer grazing period. In addition, systems with a higher gain during the summer maintained a higher gain during the finishing period. Forages that maximize summer grazing gain, when grazing cost is fixed, result in a lower cost of gain. Therefore, cattle entering the feedlot at a heavier weight and having achieved a low summer cost of gain, maintained their weight advantage through the finishing period resulting in heavier final weights and lower breakeven values.

Cattle Performance: 1994-1995

Winter Period

Calves grazed cornstalks for 91 days and were fed alfalfa hay for an additional 77 days. Gain during the winter period was .86 lb/day.

Summer Period

The amount of red clover in the red clover/bromegrass paddocks was low. Germination of red clover was slow due to a cool, wet spring; therefore, cattle grazed the bromegrass rest paddock for the first 10 day of the grazing season, to allow more time for red clover to establish. After one rotation of cattle through the red clover/bromegrass paddocks, subsequent regrowth of red clover did not occur. Therefore, for the 97-day grazing period, cattle were grazing a combination of red clover and bromegrass for only 30 days.

Gains for cattle grazing bromegrass and Sandhills range or only Sandhills range were higher (P < .05, Table 3) than cattle grazing other treatments. No difference in daily gain was noted among cattle grazing bromegrass, either rotational or continuous, the red clover/bromegrass combination or for cattle grazing the bromegrass and warm- season grass pastures. Gains for cattle grazing continuous bromegrass in the November removal group were the lowest (P < .05) for all treatments. In systems grazing combinations of cool- and warm-season grasses, we estimate that 40% of a 120 day grazing period is spent grazing cool-season pastures with 60% of the grazing season spent grazing warm-season pastures. However, no measurable rainfall occurred during the months of June and July, at the ARDC location. Therefore, available moisture for grass growth was limited for both the bromegrass and warm-season grasses which resulted in cattle being removed from pastures approximately 30 d earlier than predicted. However, cattle in the treatment grazing a combination of bromegrass and warm-season grass spent 66% of the grazing period grazing warm-season pastures and 34% grazing cool-season pastures. Calculating pasture value for both cool- and warm-season pastures indicates that the warm-season pasture was able to maintain its grazing value during the summer drought. Fall Period No difference in daily gain was noted in cattle grazing rye and cornstalks due to previous summer grazing treatments (Table 3). Finishing Period Differences among treatments for dry matter intake varied (Table 3). No difference in daily gain or feed efficiency was noted among cattle in the September/August removal treatments. However, cattle in the September/August removal treatments gained faster and more efficiently (P < .05) than cattle in the November removal treatments possibly due to environmental differences between groups. Cattle in the September/August removal treatments were slaughtered in mid-December and experienced less severe winter weather compared with November removal cattle that were slaughtered the end on January. No differences in daily gain or feed efficiency were noted among groups in the November removal treatments. No differences in fat thickness or yield grade were noted among cattle in the September/August removal treatments. However, cattle in the continuous bromegrass, November removal group (treatment 8) had a lighter final weight which resulted in less (P < .05) fat, measured at the 12th rib, and a greater (P < .05) yield grade than cattle in the continuous or rotational bromegrass, September/August removal groups. Differences in the percentage of Choice carcasses varied among treatments and is probably related to the number of days in the finishing period. Cattle in the August removal groups (treatments 1, 2, 3, and 4) were fed an average of 107 days compared with cattle in the September or November removal groups which were fed an average of 79 and 61 days, respectively. Economics Cattle grazing Sandhills range, either in combination with bromegrass or only Sandhills range (treatments 5, 6, & 7), had the most desirable breakeven costs (Table 4). No difference in breakeven costs were noted among the remaining treatments (treatments 1, 2, 3, 4, 8). Cattle grazing continuous bromegrass in the November removal group (treatment 8), numerically, had the least desirable breakeven cost. Breakeven cost correlation coefficients (r) for summer gain, the combined summer and fall gain, and feedlot gain were -.91 (P < .0001), -.53 (P < .05), and .27 (P > .30), respectively, indicating summer grazing gain or combined summer and fall grazing gain had the most effect on breakeven cost.

Transporting cattle to warm-season grasses to optimize forage quality, rather that developing warm-season pastures, is economical as evidenced by the Sandhills range treatments (Treatments 5, 6 & 7). The stress and body weight shrink associated with transporting the steers did not negatively influence weight gain. The transportation costs associated with the Sandhills range treatments would increase breakeven cost by $.95/100 lb resulting in no change in ranking of breakeven costs among treatments.

Breakeven values at slaughter reflect the final weight of each system. Further, the final weight for each system was influenced by the amount of gain achieved during the summer grazing period. Systems with a higher gain during the summer grazing period maintained a high rate of gain during the finishing period. Forages that maximize summer grazing gain, when grazing cost is fixed, result in a lower cost of gain. Therefore, cattle entering the feedlot at a heavier weight and having achieved a low summer cost of gain, maintained their weight advantage through the finishing period resulting in heavier final weights and lower breakeven values.

Stalk Grazing (Objective 2)

Calves grazing ridge-till gained .54 lb/day while those grazing conventionally-tilled stalks gained .49 lb/day. There was little mud during the grazing season and trampling of stalks was minimal. We observed that the cattle did not damage the ridges. The cattle walked between the rows where most of the residue resided. During muddy conditions, this would cause trampling of the stalks into the mud. Conversely, there would be no trampling of the soil on the ridges where the subsequent corn crop would be seeded.

Corn yields were measured on the ridge-till vs conventional grazing systems experiment in the falls of 1993, 1994 and 1995. Yields were 101, 96, 98 and 96 bu/acre were for the ridge-till ungrazed, ridge-till grazed, conventional ungrazed, and conventional grazed treatments respectively. These results indicate no difference in crop yield due to grazing in either cropping system. Residue cover measurements taken in the spring of 1994 and 1995 showed an average reduction of 13% for the ridge-till and 7% for the conventional following grazing compared to the ungrazed. Soil compaction measured by bulk density was not affected by grazing in 1993-94 or 1994-95. A concern of the ridge-till system was that cattle may destroy ridges during grazing; but following three years of grazing, ridges have been maintained and it has caused no problems in planting on the ridges. Following grazing in 1994-95, ridge heights were 6.3 and 6.1 inches for the grazed and ungrazed treatment respectively.

Research conclusions:

The opportunity to make beef production more sustainable is very great. The high price of grain the past year has been “a wake up call” to beef producers. Those who were forage-based in their production systems were better able to survive the grain prices. There is now developing a renewed interest in forage-based systems. Well managed forage-based systems are sustainable from an economic standpoint and are much more sustainable than grain-based systems from an environmental standpoint.

Economic Analysis

Please see “Results” section.

Farmer Adoption

The two producers who served as consultants for this project are both outspoken advocates of forage-based beef production. Both have been used to speak to classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their involvement in this project has helped reinforce their views. We have no measure of the effect these two successful producers may be having on other producers.

At least one large ranching operation in Nebraska has moved toward a more forage-based system. They have typically retained ownership of their calves in the feedlot and have placed the calves in the feedlot at weaning time. Last year, they kept half the calves (3,000 head) back on the ranch, wintered them and grazed them during the summer before taking them to the feedlot. They were aware of our research and we interact with the ranch manager but factors such as calf prices, the cattle cycle and corn prices may have been more important factors than just our research.

Involvement of Other Audiences:

We were invited to make a presentation to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association long range planning committee on the use of forages and crop residues in beef production. We presented our data and had a good discussion of the sustainability of beef production based on high grain use versus high forage use.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

This material has been reported in our annual Beef Cattle Report, in extension meetings, at the Nebraska Cattlemen’s meetings, to the Nebraska Sustainable Agricultural Society, at the annual American Society of Animal Science meetings and the American Society of Agronomy meetings. We have had numerous visitors to our research facility to view our results.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

1. Cover crops for grazing during the winter and spring months.

2. Impact of spring grazing of cornstalks with or without cover crops on subsequent crop production.

3. Summer grazing options.

4. Fall grazing options.

5. Time of removal from pasture to feedlot.

6. Possibility of producing lean, palatable beef from cattle produced primarily on forage with minimal time spent in the feedlot.

Citations

Lesoing, G., D. Shain, T. Klopfenstein, J. Gosey and M. Schroeder. 1996. Effect of sorghum and cornstalk grazing on crop production. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. MP 66-A:40.

Shain, D., T. Klopfenstein, R. Stock, and M. Klemesrud. 1996. Grazing systems utilizing forage combinations. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. MP 66-A:48.

Shain, D., T. J. Klopfenstein, R. A. Stock and M. J. Klemesrud. 1996. Grazing systems utilizing different summer forage combinations. J. Anim. Sci. 74(Suppl 1):200.

Jordon, D. J., T. Klopfenstein, M. Klemesrud, and G. Lesoing. 1997. Grazing corn residues in conventional and ridge-till planting systems. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. MP 67-A:27.

Lesoing, G., D. J. Jordon, and T. Klopfenstein. 1997. Effect of crop residue grazing on crop production-update of research activities. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. MP 67-A:34.

Shain D., T. Klopfenstein, R. Stock, and M. Klemesrud. 1997. Forage combinations for summer and fall grazing. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report MP 67-A:56.

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.