Comparison of Annual Forages for Grazing Lambs on Previously-Cropped Ground

Project Overview

FNC13-931
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $7,496.10
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Michael Seipel
Hickory Hollow Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Agronomic: millet, oats
  • Animals: sheep

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational, stocking rate
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns

    Summary:

    Project Duration: April 1, 2013-December 20, 2014

    Date of Report: December  20, 2014 

    PROJECT BACKGROUND

    Our farm operation consists of 230 acres that is primarily in perennial cool-season forages (exceptions: 30 acres has been used to grow soybeans for two years as an intermediate step to re-establish alfalfa on fescue hayground; 13 acres is in warm-season perennials).  Livestock enterprises consist of Katahdin sheep (breeding stock and grass-finished lamb—50 to 75 ewes).  Until this year, we had commercial beef cow-calf (20 to 35 pairs); we downsized the cow herd to four head this fall, retaining those just to provide beef for our own family and a few other relatives and friends.  We also have four Berkshire sows and raise their hogs farrow-to-finish in a deep-bedded system. 

    I grew up on a dairy farm; my wife and I have had acreage and raised sheep and cattle on our own since 1996.  We have been on the current farm (which was previously operated by her grandparents) since 1998.  We have three children (ages 17, 14, and 9) that help out on the farm and have their own animals as 4-H projects (layer hens, broilers, and Berkshire hogs).

    We have participated in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CStP) since 2012.  We have continually worked on adding more cross-fencing for management intensive rotational grazing to the farm since 2001.  We established 13 acres of warm season grass/forbs mix in 2001 to provide wildlife habitat.  We compost manure and bedding from our hog production facilities and apply it to pasture and hayground.  Through the CStP project, we have recently fenced off and planted 450 trees/shrubs in 1.5 acres of riparian stream buffer, established 300 feet of windbreak, and put in 2 acres of pollinator habitat.  All major forested areas on the farm are fenced off and livestock are excluded from these areas.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION

    Results

    The annual lease on 17 acres of marginal cropland, most recently planted to corn (9 acres) and soybeans (8 acres) was obtained in December 2012.  Oats were planted (with no-till drill) on April 5, 2013 on the 17 acres.   Fencing supplies were purchased in April and May, 2013.

    Starting weights were taken on May 22, 2013.  48 lactating ewes weighed an average of 140 lbs. each.  85 lambs, still nursing on those ewes, averaged 49 lbs each.  The average age of the lambs was 77 days or 11 weeks, so most were old enough to wean at this point in time. The decision was made to not wean the lambs and to let the ewes and lambs graze together because of the anticipated rapid growth of the oats once grazing began, the short time to utilize the oats before maturity, and the resulting need for more animal units per acre.  In addition, 19 yearling ewes, not raising lambs, averaging 131 lbs. each were included in the grazing group.  The total beginning weight of the animals being grazed was 13,408 lbs.  The animals grazed amounted to a total of 21.9 animal units, using the conversion factor of 5 adults or 10 lambs per AU.

    On May 25, 2013, this group of lambs and adult sheep (85 lambs, 67 adults) began grazing 9 acres of oats.  Electric fencing was used to strip graze the sheep on these 9 acres, with the animals moved to fresh ground every 1 to 3 days.  Forage clippings were taken at three different points to estimate total forage dry matter available; on May 24 (the day before grazing began) a sample of three clippings estimated total DM at 1,667 lbs/acre, indicating an average increase of 35 lbs DM/acre/day since planting on April 5.  On June 3, a sample of three clippings showed 2,200 lbs DM per acre, an increase of 53 lbs/acre/day since May 24.  On June 21, a final sample of three clippings from the 9 acre field showed 9,133 lbs DM/acre, an increase of 385 lbs/acre/day since June 3.  Obviously DM production increased rapidly as the oats neared maturity (see Figure 1 - DM produced per day.jpg); however, the samples selected for clipping on June 21 may not have been representative of the entire field and may have overestimated total DM availability.  By comparison, the 8 acre field, which was cut for hay on June 23 produced a total of 42,735 lbs of baled hay, or 5,342 lbs of harvested forage per acre.

    The sheep were grazed on the 9 acre field for a total of 35 days, until June 29.  Parasitism was monitored but no deworming was required.  The 85 lambs gained an average of 16.3 lbs. or 38.4% of their starting body weight (0.43 lbs/day).  The 48 lactating ewes lost an average of 4.4 lbs, 2.8% of starting body weight, or -.11 lbs/day.  The 19 yearling ewes gained an average of 4.8 lbs, 3.7% of their body weight, or .13 lbs/day.  The economic value of the lambs’ weight gain relative to establishment costs for the forage are discussed in the objectives/performance targets section.

    Because not enough animal units were available to harvest all of the oats through grazing before the grain reached maturity, the 8-acre field was cut for oat hay on June 23.  A total of 37 bales of hay, averaging 1,155 lbs. each were harvested, for total forage production of 42,735 lbs, or 5,342 lbs per acre.  This hay was stored and used as livestock feed on the farm the following winter.  The economics of harvesting the hay versus harvesting the forage via grazing lambs are discussed in the objectives/performance targets section.

    After the hay was harvested on June 26 and grazing was completed on June 29, light tillage with disk and field cultivator was performed to prepare the oats stubble for establishment of summer annual forages.  When the investigator attempted to order forage seed, both Pearl Millet and BMR sorghum were sold out for the three Missouri seed dealers contacted.  Since the investigator had already tried grazing sorghum-sudangrass hybrids with sheep, with limited success, the decision was made to plant all 17 acres to teff grass (rather than 9 ac to teff, 4 ac to BMR sorghum, and 4 ac to Pearl Millet as originally planned).  Teff grass seed was obtained and teff grass was planted on July 1, using a Brillion seeder/packer. 

    Unfortunately, this is where success with the grazing of annual forages project came to an end.  After a wet April, a moderate May, and a slightly dry June, we entered a summer drought for July and August.  No measureable precipitation was recorded on the farm in July or August.  The oats had taken up most of the available soil moisture and tillage in preparation for seeding the teff grass (which requires a firm, well-worked seedbed) had depleted remaining moisture from the topsoil.  There simply was not adequate moisture to germinate the teff grass.  By mid- to late-August, the 17 acres consisted of some annual weeds (mostly pigweed) and scattered tufts of teff grass (uploaded PowerPoint presentation contains photos).  Lambs were turned into the field in late August and early September, but grazing was very limited and mostly consisted of the animals nipping the leaves off of the pigweed.  No weight data were recorded.

    In mid-September, the investigator decided to do light tillage and seed winter wheat and crimson clover (on part of the acreage) to take advantage of anticipated fall rains and have winter annual cover for grazing/finishing lambs.  The seeding was fertilized with 50 lbs/acre of N (urea) to encourage early fall growth for grazing.  Unfortunately, the dry weather continued into the fall.  Wheat germination was only moderate, and there was not sufficient growth before dormancy set in and snow cover took over.  A colder-than-normal winter limited growth and no winter grazing was obtained off of the field at all.  Significant growth did not occur until late March/early April of the following year and at that point the decision was made to let the wheat mature and harvest it for grain so that the field could be seeded back to perennial forages.

    Objectives/Performance Targets

     One of the grant objectives was to document dry matter (DM) production and animal units (AU) or Animal Unit Months (AUMs) provided from various annual forages.  Careful measurements were used to document DM production for oats and utilization of dry matter by grazing sheep.  The estimated DM production per day at various points in the oats’ production cycle was documented in the Summary section.  DM available was estimated based on forage height prior to turn-in to a new section of forage and DM remaining was estimated based on forage height and trampled forage when the animals moved on to the next paddock or strip.  The difference between these figures was recorded as an estimate of DM intake by the grazing animals.  Based on these measures, it is estimated that the animals consumed 21,864 lbs. DM during the 35-day grazing period, or 2,429 lb/ac.  If we take the lbs of hay harvested off of the adjoining field as an estimate of total DM production during the oats growing period (5,342 lbs DM/ac), this indicates a forage utilization rate by the grazing sheep of approximately 45%.  The estimated DM intake of 21,864 lbs. during the 35-day grazing period would indicate that the sheep were taking in about 4.4% of their body weight in DM per day; this is higher than would be expected, and may be a function of under-estimating the remaining residue when the animals were removed from a grazed area, thus over-estimating intake.

    The oats during their grazing period provided 25.55 Animal Unit Months (AUMs) of grazing, or 2.84 AUM/acre.  This calculation is based on a 35-day grazing period (1.17 months) in which 21.9 AUs grazed on 9 acres of forage.

    Unfortunately, DM production of teff grass and winter wheat could not be evaluated because of minimal emergence or available stand for measurement or grazing.

    Another objective of the grant was to document the economic returns of grazing annual forages on marginal cropland versus raising annual row-crops on those acres.

    Sufficient data were gathered on lamb weight gain versus the cost of forage establishment for oats to make this comparison.  Since part of the oats were harvested as hay, the implied revenue from hay production is also calculated and compared to that from grazing lambs.  Even though teff grass establishment was not successful due to lack of rainfall, the investigator made some assumptions about how much grazing and how much lamb weight gain might have been obtained from grazing the teff grass under more normal growing conditions.  The comparison table has been uploaded (see Economics of gain from forages - Sheet 1.pdf).

    In short, lambs gained a total of 1,382 lbs on oats during a 35-day grazing period (their mothers, also grazing with them, lost a small amount of weight, not unexpected and something they will easily regain after the lambs are weaned).  Valuing this gain at $1.50 per lb, that amounts to $2,073, or $230.33 in gross revenue per acre.  Expenses per acre, including cash rent and forage establishment costs, were $194.84, leaving a marginal net return of $35.49/acre.  For the oats that were harvested as hay, the net is a loss of $10.59/acre after mowing, raking, and baling costs are considered.  These returns alone do not compare to available per acre returns from corn or soybean production in recent years; however, the oats provided better early ground cover and minimized erosion from heavy April and May rains. 

    Moreover, in a typical year, there was adequate remaining time to establish a summer annual forage and capture the benefits of additional lamb weight gain grazing these forages.  In this particular project, those additional gains were not realized because unusually dry summer conditions prevented establishment of the summer annual, teff grass.  For purposes of comparison, the investigator assumes that in a “normal” year, at least a 35-day grazing period on the teff, with similar average daily gains of 0.43 lbs/day would have been obtainable (i.e. grazing from mid-August to mid-September).  This would have generated another $230.33 in revenue per acre.  Since cash rent has already been charged to the grazing of oats, teff grass establishment costs are the only marginal costs, leaving $158.71 in net marginal revenue from grazing teff grass with lambs.  When added to the net revenue from grazing oats, the overall net revenue from grazing lambs on two annual forage crops comes to $194.20 per acre.

    Accomplishments/Milestones

    Oats were successfully established and grazed.  Dry matter production was measured and recorded.  Lamb weight gain was monitored and recorded, and the net marginal revenue of lamb weight gain relative to the marginal cost of forage establishment was evaluated.

    Teff grass was planted but was not available for grazing due to lack of rainfall.  Winter wheat was planted but not available for grazing due to lack of rainfall.

    Research findings were presented at the Missouri Livestock Symposium on December 7, 2013 and disseminated via outreach to other audiences as identified in the Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes section.

    Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

    This project demonstrated that annual cover crops (in this case, oats) can be used successfully and economically as a nutrient source for grazing livestock (lambs).  The project also showed that utilization of annual forage crops has risks and is highly weather-dependent and time-sensitive.  Even though 2013 was not a severe drought year to the extent of 2012, the timing of rainfall did not favor the use of summer annuals.  Spring forage growth had depleted soil moisture and not enough summer moisture was available to germinate the teff grass and provide a true test of the suitability of this relative new (to the Midwest) forage for grazing of growing livestock.

    Outreach

    Results of this project were presented to 25 other farmers at the Missouri Livestock Symposium in Kirksville, Missouri on December 7, 2013.  Results were also shared with 36 students enrolled in the Ethical Issues in Sustainable Agriculture class at Truman State University during the Fall 2013 semester.  The investigator answered a number of questions from other producers who saw the sheep being strip-grazed from the state highway that is adjacent to the property.

    PEOPLE

    The student employed as a research assistant on the project (Lizzie Evers) gained a wide array of experience in sheep handling and management, FAMACHA method of evaluating symptoms of parasitism, electric fencing systems, forage identification, measurement, and management, and a variety of other skills.  She is currently a senior at Truman State University; she has applied to two colleges of veterinary medicine and is waiting to hear whether she has been accepted by either school; she is also in the process of identifying graduate schools and is interested in graduate programs in public health, immunology, or epidemiology (as related to animal science/agriculture).

    The investigator gained additional experience in measuring and monitoring forage dry matter production and utilization by livestock, through the assistance and instruction of NRCS Grasslands Conservationist Tim Clapp.  Tim Clapp made multiple visits to the farm and project site.  He instructed the investigator and student assistant in how to make forage measurements in the field and collect samples for dry matter production estimates.

    The investigator used grazing and forage resources from NCAT/ATTRA as well as various University Extension websites to evaluate forage options and establishment procedures.

    Mark Collins from the Macon County SWCD provided instruction on setting the Great Plains drill and Brillion seeder for forage establishment.

    DISCUSSION

    I learned several lessons from this project.  Annual forages can play a key role in filling gaps in energy and protein availability left by cool-season perennial pastures.  The economic value of livestock weight gains on these forages, while not comparable to returns from annual cash crops during the time the project was completed, are substantial enough that grazing merits consideration, especially with the drop in corn and soybean prices (and returns) that occurred in 2014.

    Grazing lambs (or goats) as compared to beef cows or calves provides additional challenges.  The extra expense and labor involved with portable electric fencing for managing sheep and lambs grazing these annual forages is a not-insignificant barrier.  I would advise those inquiring that, if they are not already committed to sheep production, cattle may be a better option for grazing annual forages on previously cropped ground.  If they are already committed to sheep production and trying to find better grazing forages, then try to establish more permanently-fenced paddocks over time, and use annual forages to renovate cool-season pastures within those paddocks on a multi-year basis. 

    The lessons learned from the grant have generated continued interest from me in finding ways to strategically utilize annual forages.  They have also reinforced the need for long-term planning for forage establishment and utilization.  One needs to have a three- or four-year plan in mind as to where one would want to utilize annual forages of different types.  Winter/spring annuals with strong promise in this area (especially for sheep and goats) are annual ryegrass and cereal rye.  Oats provided an excellent early-spring forage option for sheep and lambs.  Sorghum sudan grass and pearl millet look attractive for summer annual options because they can be established in existing pasture (usually with a glyphosate burndown) using a no-till drill.  The project has piqued my interest in Teff grass.  Even though its establishment was not successful, I do wish to attempt it again as a summer grazing annual.  The biggest downside that I see to it is that it will require a tilled seedbed for establishment (very small seed size); due to the rolling topography on our pastures, I try to avoid tillage, but have some more level paddocks where I will probably try it on a test basis again in the future.

    Project objectives:

    - Emergence and stand: I will use visual appraisal and digital photography to document how quickly each of the forages (oats, teff, pearl millet, sorghum-sudan, ryegrass, crimson clover) emerges and what percent ground cover it provides after full emergence
    - Dry matter production: small areas (approx. 4’x4’) will be fenced off for each of the forage types; DM production per acre will be estimated by clipping a measured area within these enclosures each time that animals are turned in to graze that area of the field
    - Animal unit grazing days provided: for each forage type, I will record the number and size of animals grazing and the length of time grazed so that we can calculate and compare the number of animal unit days of grazing provided per acre for each forage type.
    - Weight gain: ewe and lamb weights will be documented before and after the period of grazing the oats; lamb gain will be recorded before and after turn-in to each forage type when grazing the summer annuals; to facilitate comparison across the season as the animals grow, gain will be standardized to live weight gain per day as percentage of the animal’s body weight at the beginning of that grazing period
    - Economics of the grazing system: all direct input costs associated with establishing and managing the forages will be recorded; revenue will be estimated by taking the weight gained by lambs during the time their mothers are grazing the oats and while the lambs are grazing the summer annuals, and valuing that weight gain at the current market price for lambs during the fall of 2013
    - in the event that there is surplus forage production at some time during the project (lambs cannot keep up with forage growth), surplus forage will be harvested; the teff will probably be cut and baled for hay—the quantity of hay and its estimated market value will be recorded; the sorghum-sudan and pearl millet will probably be harvested using stocker calves; I do not have a ready way to weigh these calves, so I will just record the AU grazing days provided and estimate their value at a custom grazing rate of $30/AU month.

    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.