Opti-Maizing Beef Cattle Profits and Environmental Quality
Farm income has been highly dependent upon tobacco production in our region for some time. Since the production of tobacco may soon decline, future cash income projections are uncertain prompting closer study of other agriculture enterprises like beef cattle.
Many farms in this region have pasture land and a history of beef cattle production. Unfortunately, many producers are experiencing reduced profitability from under-utilization of potential feed sources, high cost of harvesting and storing grains, and low animal performance per unit of land area. Although confined feeding operations are designed to increase feeding efficiency, high labor requirements must be considered.
Farm labor availability is limiting the opportunity for beef production to become more intensive because many farmers must also spend part of their time working off the farm. So traditional systems that require a high labor input for feed production, storage and feeding often prevent the part-time farmer from expanding his/her operation to a level that has the potential to supplement income lost from tobacco.
Grazing is the cheapest way to feed beef cattle on a cost-per-pound-of-nutrient basis. Extending the grazing season would enable producers to reduce costs and expand production with little or no impact on the environment. Although corn is not a traditional grazing crop, results from several non-replicated on-farm trials in southeast Kentucky suggest that significant increases in animal production from grazing standing mature corn during late fall/early winter are possible and economical. If cattle are used to harvest standing corn, there will be no need for harvesting, storage and feeding of this high-energy feed which should reduce equipment needs, fuel cost, capital investment and labor cost. Grazing can be managed with temporary fencing and properly placed watering systems. This system returns the manure to the land thus promoting nutrient cycling and minimizing potential impacts on ground and surface water. Soil erosion potential is greatly reduced with residue cover that is maintained on the land.
Controlled and replicated field trials will be used to document results. These on-farm trials would measure animal performance, crop utilization, grazing efficiency, cost of feed and beef production and ultimately profit. In addition, they would monitor nutrient recycling and quality of surface water leaving the fields. This will lead to educational material and program development for other producers considering this opportunity.