Development of a novel grazing system for sustainability of a cow-calf operation

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Jason Carter
VA Cooperative Extension


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing management, grazing - rotational, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping
  • Education and Training: extension
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems

    Proposal summary:

    Most commercial cattle production operations in Virginia rely heavily on cool-season forage production for their grazing systems. Cool season forages in our area typically consist of tall fescue, orchardgrass and bluegrass pastures. The growth curve of these forages is such that maximum forage production occurs in the late spring and early fall. The majority of cow-calf operations in the Valley and in Virginia will calve in the spring and will graze these cool season pastures throughout the year. Summertime conditions in this area are typically hot and dry, and with the predominance of cool season forages the growth and performance of our pastures slow during these months resulting in a period of time commonly referred to as the “summer slump”. During this period our forage systems provide very little in the way of nutritious and palatable feed for our cattle. Calves tend to have little to no weight gain and the animals are often stressed from flies and parasites. Continuously grazing these pastures with only minimal rotation also results in stress for the forage system and will usually result in the young succulent re-growth being eaten while the older plants mature and become unpalatable. This entire system of relying on cool-season forages with continuous grazing pressure typically requires us to begin feeding hay early in the fall and continuing until early spring in order to maintain animal growth and performance. Adding insult to injury is the sharply rising cost of inputs, including fertilizer and herbicide, and the declining sale price of feeder cattle in the face of the current economic situation. We must find ways to increase the profitability of our cow-calf operations by lowering our production costs, while at the same time building our soils and plant communities while minimizing costly inputs. One way to significantly lower the cost of production for a cow-calf operation in Virginia is to decrease the duration and intensity of supplemental feeding while at the same time maximizing calf weight gains and cow performance. The most effective way to accomplish this goal is by extending the grazing season through the introduction of warm season forages, winter cereals and legumes, and rotational grazing systems. Warm-season forages have a different growth curve than cool-season forages in that they become most productive during the hot summer months, and thus have the capability to overcome the “summer slump” period. The specific objectives of this project are: 1)To compare the weight gain and profitability of calves rotationally grazing a warm-season forage system to calves continuously grazing a typical cool-season grass pasture; 2)To compare the performance and profitability of brood cows rotationally grazing a “salad bar” mix of warm and cool season grasses and legumes to cows that are continuously grazing a standard cool season perennial pasture; and 3)To disseminate the findings of this project to other beef cattle producers in the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia. Two groups of calves (born in fall of 2008) will be selected for this objective. The first group, or treatment group, will be weaned in early summer of 2009 and will begin grazing Teff grass that was established earlier that year. Teff grass is a warm season annual grass that is beginning to gain some popularity in the region. Typically planted as a high quality hay crop, research at West Virginia University has shown significant weight gains in calves that have grazed Teff. This warm season grass fills a niche in the ecology of the current cool season system, and provides high quality forage during the “summer slump” period. Grazing of Teff must be carefully managed, however, and thus a management intensive grazing (MIG) system will be established. This system will consist of temporary electric fencing to divide the grazing area into paddocks and will allow us to dictate where the calves will graze at any given time. The second group, or control group, of calves will graze traditional summer pasture during the same time period. Both groups of calves will have adequate access to water and mineral. Soil tests will be taken before and after the grazing period begins and recommended levels of nutrients will be applied. Representative samples of the forage sward will be taken at several times during the grazing period to determine biomass and quality differences. In order to measure differences in gains, calves will be weighed at weaning and then at the time of sale. Partial budget analysis between the systems will be performed to determine the economical sustainability of the two systems.

    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.