Increasing Sustainability of Livestock Production of the Northern Great Plains

2012 Annual Report for LNC11-335

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $199,736.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Douglas Landblom
North Dakota State University-Dickinson Research Extension Center

Increasing Sustainability of Livestock Production of the Northern Great Plains


Increasing sustainability of livestock production in the Northern Great Plains has significant implications for the agricultural sector in the focus region. Crop and beef cattle producers are experiencing historically high commodity prices and comparably high input costs. The research in this project looks into integration of crop and beef cattle systems to identify the complementing holistic potential that may exist. Paralleling the actual research is a focus on education for existing producers through farmer-cooperator projects, educational events for high school and undergraduate students, and an international connection with a short-term research scientist from Turkey. Since this project was established one year before SARE funding was awarded, crop production data, cow-calf, yearling steer finishing, and heifer development data are available in this report. Public awareness of alternative production methodologies is increasing as evidenced by the number of people attending the 2012 Beef Cattle and Forage Field Day that was held on August 29 at the Dickinson Research Extension Center ranch. Attendees listened to slate of speakers that ranged from topics addressing grass finished beef to ranch operations that custom graze upwards of 2,200 yearling steers per summer. And different research aspects of the SARE project were presented that summarized extensive heifer development, perennial and annual forage grazing for yearling steer growth prior to feedlot entry, the value of cover crops, and a discussion around what the initial soil Foodweb analysis means and how it will be used. Emphasis on educational outreach to increase producer awareness and acceptance will be initiated during the 2nd year of the project in southwestern North Dakota. Student internships have been difficult to get underway due to the energy explosion in western North Dakota that pays much higher wages. To overcome the problem, undergraduate student research project(s) and the student internships will be combined into single expanded efforts, which will make more efficient use of student time invested. Crop, livestock, soil, and economic data will continue to be collected during the second year of the project and alternative production educational events will be initiated for high school, undergraduate college students, and producers. Summarized data to date suggests that grazing and situations in which the animal does its own foraging and harvesting leads to improved profit margins.

Objectives/Performance Targets

1. Compare three cow-calf production systems (Conventional, Integrated, and Yearling) tailored for the semi-arid region of the Northern Great Plains from birth to final harvest to determine the effect of system on production and profitability using whole-systems econometric analyses and ranch profitability analyses.
2. Evaluate the effect of systems integration on the biological responses of animals, crops, weeds, soil, and water conservation.
3. Establish student alternative production system programs to include: High school and college student awareness programs, undergraduate summer internships and research projects.
4. Conduct integrated crop-livestock grazing management workshops for producers, Extension educators and other government agency personnel.


Objective 1
The site location for this project was initially seeded to spring wheat across the entire study area in 2009. Then, during the 2010-2011 crop season the experimental integrated crop and livestock rotation was established and livestock water and fencing were completed. Livestock production data for the project begins with calves born in 2010 and carried over as yearling steers and heifers in 2011, which is necessary given the long generation interval for yearling cattle. Beginning with the 2011-2012 crop season the SARE project LNC11-335 was initiated.

After weaning on November 15 of each year, all calves are moved to drylot at the DREC ranch headquarters for 7 days to recover from weaning and are then moved to unharvested corn fields for backgrounding along with supplemental hay. The control cows in the conventional system (CS) were assigned to drylot pens for hay feeding. Cows in the forage-based system (FS) graze fields of stockpiled perennial forage (crested wheatgrass and native range pasture) and corn residue as an alternative to reduce the quantity of harvested hay fed during the winter. Cows assigned to the integrated cropping system (IS) grazed fields of corn residue followed by fields of cover crops. Upon completion of the two different extended grazing methods, e.g. FS and IS treatments, the cows are moved to drylot pens and fed hay until calving the next spring. Three treatment groups of yearling steers are being used to evaluate in an extended grazing comparison that begins after weaning, when the steers graze stockpiled corn and receive supplemental hay. The 1st week of May each year, the yearling steers were randomly divided into three treatment groups: 1) control, 2) perennial grass only (crested wheatgrass > native pasture > feedlot), and 3) perennial grass + annual forage (crested wheatgrass > native pasture > field pea/barley > unharvested corn > feedlot). Control group are moved directly to the feedlot at the University of Wyoming, Lingle, WY and grown until slaughter. The extended grazing groups graze their respective forage sequences until early November, when they too are moved to the University of Wyoming feedlot for finishing and slaughter. All steers are harvested at the Cargill Meat Solutions packing plant, Ft. Morgan, CO. After a 48 hour chill and federal carcass grading, strip loin steaks are removed from each carcass half for shear force and sensory panel evaluation (tenderness, taste, and juiciness).

Project Data Collection:
Numerous data points are being recorded for crops, livestock, soils, and economic inputs and returns.

Data Collection Includes:
• Cow, calf, heifer development, and yearling data (costs, growth, efficiency, feed savings, meat sensory evaluation, and systems economic analysis)
• Soil health analysis (standard physical soil measurements, soil food web analysis, bulk density, water infiltration, crop fertilizer recommendation changes)
• Whole-farm input costs and returns are being managed using the Farm-Works database management system
• Producer Cooperator demonstration results to the extent that they have kept records.

Objective 2
Baseline soil chemical, physical, and biological measurements are being conducted. Measurements of change in soil quality will be finalized in the last year of the study.

Objective 3
As data is accumulated, it will be compiled and used in programming for youth education at the high school and college level. These are two very different demographic groups that will be addressed differently. At the high school level, students and their Vo-Ag instructors are invited to participate in an annual student field day awareness program in which various aspects of agriculture are presented by university personnel from Dickinson State University and North Dakota State University, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Educational programming for undergraduate college students is designed student internships and undergraduate student research projects. Due to difficult attracting students to the internship program, the internship and undergraduate student research programs are being combined.

In addition to the high school and college level education and research projects, the project has been fortunate to expand internationally through an arrangement between the Dickinson Research Extension Center and Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Canakkale, BIGA, Turkey. As part of the educational outreach, a visiting Short-Term Scholar, Songul Senturklu, Ph.D., was invited to participate in the project and the invitation was accepted. Geographically and environmentally, there are fertile regions in Turkey with similarities to the northern Great Plains of the U.S. While Turkish farmers and agricultural methods are antiquated and vastly different from American agricultural methods, the relationship incurs an international connection to alternative methods that may fit well into less intense Turkish farming methods.

Objective 4

Our research team will begin offering alternative production systems management workshops during the 2nd and 3rd production cycles of the project. These educational events will include Train-the-Trainer education for extension educators and farmer-rancher-end users that desire to learn what to expect and about how to employ alternative integrated crop and grazing management principles in their farming and ranching enterprises. To augment these educational events, tours of the Farmer/Rancher Cooperator Demonstration Projects will be conducted.

Five farmer/ranchers signed participation letters to conduct a project. Of the 5 producers, 2 actually completed their intended projects. A 3rd producer planted a corn crop for grazing, but grasshoppers destroyed the crop and it was abandoned and crop insurance was collected. A 4th producer wanted to do a project, but his involvement was depended on receiving EQUIP funds for infrastructure construction, which did not materialize. And the 5th producer decided to withdraw from the project citing that he was retiring and the project would be require too much effort.

Video documentation of the Farmer/Rancher Cooperator Demonstration Projects are on-going and provide a steady flow of direct up-to-date interviews and information from the producers. Video documentation of the research at the DREC has also been conducted during the growing season.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Objective 1
The comparative crop and livestock systems are running smoothly. Crop production from the diverse rotation and integration with livestock grazing is the key component in this SARE project. The crop rotations were established a year before SARE funding was received; therefore, yields for 2011 and 2012 are shown in Table 1. Establishment prior to the start of the funded study enabled us to work out any project management problems in advance of the project’s initiation date. Biological production data collected in objective 2 will be used to determine systems effect on profitability. Systems whole farm input costs and returns are being handled using FarmWorks software where production and economic data are being stored for future analysis.

Objective 2
A very brief summary of crop production data is shown in Table 1.

Cattle performance following grazing of summer native range pastures, crop residue (corn and sunflower) and cover crops, grass pastures, and drylot winter forage is incomplete at the time this report was prepared. For cow and calf performance through weaning, the data is summarized in Table 2. Winter performance after weaning is incomplete and will be reported in the next annual report.

A forage-based extensive heifer development project has been added to the research. This system capitalizes upon the natural occurring step-up energy gradient affordable when grazing unharvested corn and residue with supplemental hay during the wintering period followed by grazing high quality spring and early summer crested wheatgrass prior to an even higher energy forage-based distillers grain co-product supplement. The project is summarized in the abstract below.


Effect of frame score and forage-based stair-step development
system on replacement heifer growth and reproductive performance
S. Senturklu, D. G. Landblom, G. A. Perry, T. Petry

Extensive stair-step dietary energy management was employed to evaluate replacement heifer development between small (SF: 3.50; n = 50) and large (LF: 5.56; n = 50) frame heifer calves that grazed common fields of unharvested corn and corn residue with supplemental hay (Step 1) and crested wheatgrass pasture (Step 2) before randomization to a final drylot growing and breeding period in which alfalfa and a blended co-product supplement were fed (Step 3). Ending step 1 (209 d) percent of mature body weight (BW) was 49 and 47% and the percent pubertal was 18.0 and 40.0% (P < 0.05) for the SF and LF heifers, respectively. Step 2 crested wheatgrass heifer growth increased significantly (P < 0.10). At breeding initiation (Step 3), the percent of mature BW was 57.8 and 57.2% of mature BW and the percent pubertal was 90.0 and 96.0% (P > 0.10) for SF and LF heifers, respectively. Breeding cycle pregnancy and total percent pregnant did not differ (P > 0.10). Employing extensive stair-step energy management, SF heifer feed DMI was 20.1% less (P < 0.01), feed cost was 16.2% lower (P < 0.05), and net pregnant heifer cost was 20.4% less than for the LF heifers.

Alternative approaches to growing and finishing yearling steers that may improve profitability through retained ownership is being studied as one of the livestock project initiatives. A brief summary for the 1 year of a 2-year investigation using medium to large frame steers follows:

Research Brief

Effect of Perennial and Annual Forage Sequence Grazing on Yearling Steer Growth, feedlot performance, meat tenderness, sensory panel evaluation, and economics
S. Senturklu, D.G. Landblom, R. Maddock, and S. Paisley

Seventy-two medium to large frame score yearling steers (ANxRAxAN and RAxANxHH) were used to evaluate conventional feedlot finishing (FLT) to steers that either grazed perennial pasture (PST) (crested wheatgrass > native range) or a sequence of perennial pasture (crested wheatgrass > native range) and annual forage (ANN) (field pea-barley > unharvested corn) before being moved to the feedlot for final finishing. Steers in the comparative systems were slaughtered at Cargill Meat Solutions Packing Plant, Ft. Morgan, Colorado, where strip loin steak samples were harvested from each carcass and returned to the NDSU Meats Lab for Warner Bratszler shear force tenderness test and sensory panel evaluation for flavor and juiciness. Systems comparative economic analysis was conducted to determine system net return.

Average daily gain for the grazing steers was 2.23 and 2.47 lb/steer/day for the PST and ANN steers, and 4.21 lb/steer/day for the FLT steers. Compared to the grazing steer ADGs, the FLT steer ADGs were 1.79 times greater, which reduced the FLT steer time from birth to slaughter by an average 3.9 months (FLT – 17.6 months; PST & ANN – 21.5 months). The grazing steers grazed a total of 177 days (May 2-Oct 26) compared to the FLT steers that were confined in the feedlot for 133 days (May 2-Sep 20). The cost/head/day for the PST steers was $0.8820/day and $0.8456/day for the ANN steers up to being transferred to the annual forage fields. The total grazing cost/head was $156.12 for the PST steers and $234.70 for the ANN steers (Pasture cost $90.48 + annual forage cost $144.23). Grazing gain for the PST steers was 394.8 lb and 437.0 lb for the ANN steers, resulting in a pasture cost/lb of gain of $0.3956 for the PST steers and $0.5370 for the ANN steers.

Compared to the FLT steers, ADGs and feed costs/lb of gain for the grazing steers in the feedlot were similar, but total feeding costs were significantly lower due to extended grazing. Pasture rotation for steers that grazed the perennial and annual forages was based on forage crude protein. Following crested wheatgrass and native pasture grazing with annual forage grazing elevated grazing gain and carcass quality prior to feedlot entry, which resulted in the shortest feedlot finishing period of 69 days, compared to 90 days on feed for the full-season pasture treatment. Correspondingly, and compared to the FLT group, both grazing methods, PST and ANN, reduced feedlot residency, feed cost, and increase net return.

Steers in the FLT group had lighter hot carcass weight than either of the extended grazing treatments, suggesting that the FLT group could have been on feed for an additional 40 days or more. However, the important observation is that the extended grazing treatments produced carcasses of very high quality grade at a much lower cost. Carcasses from the PST system graded 75.0% Choice or higher and those from the ANN graded 91.7% Choice or higher; the FLT carcasses graded 43.5% Choice or better. Higher carcass quality resulted in higher carcass value for the two extended forage grazing systems compared to the FLT direct system.

Meat tenderness was evaluated using the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force measurement technique. Regardless of how the steers were grown, there was no difference in tenderness, flavor, or juiciness. Meat from steers that grazed grasses or grasses and annual forage for 177 days before entering the feedlot were as tender as steers that were feed a corn diet for 133 days .

The net return for each of the three systems evaluated is shown in Table 3. After all grazing and cropping expenses were accounted for and combined with the feedlot costs, both grazing scenarios were profitable compared to a significantly large loss to the feedlot system. These results demonstrate that alternative methods can be used to increase cattle value.

This yearling steer systems comparison was continued for a second year and that data will be combined into a 2-year summary in the next SARE report for LNC11-335.

Baseline soil health measurements to include chemical (N, P, K, S, Zn, Fe, Mn, Cu, Cl, pH, and Elec. Conductivity), physical (bulk density, water infiltration rate, and water holding capacity), and biological (organic matter, soil Foodweb, and growing season nitrogen mineralization) data are being collected. The final evaluation of soil health change due to systems integration will be reported after ending measurements are taken in the last year of the investigation.

Objective 3

Outreach educational programming during the startup year has included farmer-rancher cooperator demonstration projects, coordination with high school and collegiate agricultural leadership for field days, and an international connection with Turkish, Short-Term Scholar, Songul Senturklu, Ph.D. We have had some difficulty in attracting students to become involved in a summer internship. Competition for salary is highly competitive due to wages that are being paid by the oil industry. We will continue to solicit students for a program modification in which the internship and undergraduate research projects are combined. There are many researchable projects that students can become engaged in from within the greater context of this SARE project.

Short-Term outcomes are being accomplished by increasing awareness among producers and students. Producer demonstration projects are the most positive and encouraging elements of the project that will help increase awareness of alternative approaches to crop production and cattle management procedures that will improve the environment.

Documentation of producer-cooperator project progress and the research center’s diverse cropping system was captured on ten videos that have been posted on YouTube for worldwide access. After the posting there have been a few calls from producers outside of the immediate agricultural region, which is especially encouraging. The Ten YouTube videos have been posted on the Dickinson Research Extension Center website and can be located at

The Beef Cattle & Forage Field Day was held on August 29, 2012 with an estimated 120 people in attendance. The day was very hot, but the people in the audience came to learn and there was ample information for them to take home. After the main event, which ran from 8:45 am to 4:00 pm, a bull session with dinner was held at the Center’s main office in Dickinson. This session was well attended and people asked a wide variety of questions – some we could not answer –provided great food for thought, though.

High school student field day events have been a part of the DREC outreach programming prior to the SARE funding award. Vocational Ag instructors have been very receptive to taking the extra time needed to attend the event. Participants come from an eight county region in southwestern North Dakota. An estimated 60 students attended with their instructors.
For 2013, the Beef Cattle & Forage Field Day will be held on August 19 in conjunction with the 2013 GrassFed Exchange. The programs will be held independently, but GrassFed Exchange attendees are being encouraged to come to North Dakota early and attend the Center’s field day before going on to the GrassFed Exchange program.

The high school field day will be held on September 4, 2013.

Program agendas for the Beef Cattle & Forage Field Day and the High School Student Field Day are shown in Appendix I.

Objective 4

The integrated crop and livestock grazing management workshops and train-the-trainer programs for extension, SCD, and NRCS personnel are planned activities. These activities are scheduled to begin during the second year of the study continuing into the last year of the study. Management school educational programming will be presented in January or February 2014.

Appendix I


Dr. Songul Senturklu

[email protected]
Short - Term Visiting Shcolar
NDSU - Dickinson Research Extension Center , Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University
1041 State Avenue
Dickinson, ND 58601
Office Phone: (701) 456-1110
Chester Brandt

3132 Co. Rd 89
Hebron, ND 58638
Office Phone: 7018784966
Tim Petry

[email protected]
Assoc. Prof/Livestock Economist
NDSU - Dept. of Agribusiness & Applied Economics
608 Barry Hall
NDSU Dept. 7610
Fargo, ND 58108
Office Phone: 7012317469
Lance Gartner

6285 46 St.
Glen Ullin, ND 58631
Office Phone: 7013483740
Derrick Dukart

11261 15 St. SW.
Manning, ND 58642
Office Phone: 7015734322
Dr. Kevin Sedivec

[email protected]
NDSU Extension Rangeland Management Spec.
NDSU - Extension School of Natural Resources Sciences
100F Hultz Hall
NDSU Dept. 2230
Fargo, ND 58108
Office Phone: 7012317647
Lucas Hoff

[email protected]
8969 31.St. SW
Richardton, ND 58652
Office Phone: (701) 974-2316
Gerald Bieber

6430 County Rd 20
Beulah, ND 58523
Office Phone: 7018735533