Improving Sustainability of Cow-Calf Operations with Natural Forage Systems

Project Overview

LNC97-119
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $81,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $331,140.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Don Adams
University of Nebraska, West Central Research and Extension Center

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: sorghum (milo)

Practices

  • Crop Production: agroforestry

    Abstract:

    [The report for this project includes many tables, and mathematical formulas that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or ncrsare@unl.edu.]

    Objective: Our primary objective was to determine if labor and purchased inputs could be reduced and sustainability and profitability improved by matching lactation (i.e. calving and weaning) with nutrient content of grazed forages and/or by extending the grazing season in beef cow/calf systems. Specific objectives: (1) Compare total resource use (especially labor, equipment, and feed), production output, and profitability of traditional March calving to a June calving system; (2) Evaluate weaning systems that reduce inputs of resources and improve profitability of traditional March calving systems; (3) Educate 250 producers per year about the concept of matching nutritional requirements of cattle to the nutritional content of forages and extending traditional grazing systems.

    Methods: The general approach involved combining results from the SARE project research with completed and ongoing studies and records of participating producers into a whole ranch systems analysis. A June calving date was compared to a traditional March calving date. The impacts of non-traditional grazing of subirrigated meadow to extend the grazing season in lieu of traditional haying were also researched. Total input use, both quantity and quality, were monitored and measured. Output of each system was measured to provide a necessary part of the economic analysis. Whole ranch budgets for a typical Sandhills operation were used for economic comparisons of calving dates. Price and production risk were incorporated into the analysis.

    Results: Key results are that by adjusting calving date to match lactation with nutrients in grazed forages, nearly 2 tons of harvested feed was replaced by grazing. Feeding and calving labor inputs were 61% lower for the June calving compared to the March calving system. Weaning rates were comparable between March and June calving systems. Weaning weights for June-born calves were 70 lbs. lighter than March-born calves. However, because of the lower feeding costs and higher prices for lighter calves, net returns at weaning were higher by about $75/head for calves born in June compared to those born in March. A significant fact in adopting our concepts to cattle production systems is that capital outlays are generally not required nor is risk increased. In addition the use of fossil fuels would be greatly reduced since hay harvesting and feeding activities are greatly reduced.

    Impacts: We estimate that as many as 250,000 head of cattle may have been impacted to date by our project. If a $75/calf increase in returns were realized for each calf impacted the beef cattle industry would realize an increase in returns of over $18 million annually. This work has been presented to over 4,000 people in each of the last five years. The Nebraska Ranch Practicum, a 7-day school for producers, was a direct spin-off of the work from this project. Prior to our publication, “Extended grazing systems for improving economic returns from Nebraska Sandhills cow/calf operations,” the term “Extended Grazing” was not apparent in research or extension publications. Since that time “Extended Grazing” has appeared in scientific publications and numerous extension and production symposia. Our research on matching nutrient requirements of the cow with nutrients in grazed forages has resulted in initiation of research on calving date in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Missouri, and Utah. It is our assessment that our interdisciplinary systems research is on the cutting edge of range beef systems research in the United States and beyond.

    Introduction:

    Our primary objective was to determine if labor and purchased inputs could be reduced and sustainability and profitability improved by matching lactation (i.e. calving and weaning) with nutrient content of grazed forages and/or by extending the grazing season in beef cow/calf systems. Previously most research and production systems had attempted to match the forage to the cow with various practices such as seeding range or pasture land to non-native grasses to meet a nutrient void of cattle in range plants. In project 1 during 1994 through 1999, cows were calved beginning March 15 (traditional calving date) or 15 June (nontraditional calving date) at the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory near Whitman NE. The June calving date matched the high nutrient lactation requirements of the cow with high nutrient content of immature growing plants. March calving cows were fed hay January through mid-May and grazed rangeland mid-May through December. June calving cows grazed rangeland all year long except during harsh winter weather. Calves were weaned at the same age in October and January for March and June calving systems respectively. Total input use was monitored and output recorded for March and June calving systems. Project 2 is using weaning date as a means to match nutrient requirements of lactation with forage nutrients in a March calving system. Beginning in 1997 through 2001 March calving cows will be weaned in August or November and will graze range all year long except during calving, March through mid-May. Inputs and outputs are being monitored as described for March and June calving systems. The findings for project 1 are summarized below:

    Hay fed, lb/yr:
    March Calving 3947
    June Calving 227

    Supplement fed, lb/yr:
    March Calving 96
    June Calving 154

    Pregnancy rate, %:
    March Calving 94.8
    June Calving 91.9

    Weaning rate, %:
    March Calving 88.8
    June Calving 89.0

    Steer weaning weight, lb:
    March Calving 480
    June Calving 421

    Gross value/steer calf, $:
    March Calving 410.00
    June Calving 409.00

    Cost/weaned steer, $:
    March Calving 252
    June Calving 175

    Net on returns/steer, $:
    March Calving 86
    June Calving 156

    Key results are that by matching lactation with nutrients in grazed forages by adjusting calving date nearly 2,000 pounds of harvested feed was replaced by grazing and net returns were about $80 and $70/head higher for steer calves born in June compared to those born in March. We estimate that as many as 250,000 head of cattle may have been impacted to date by our project. If a $75/calf increase in returns were realized for each calf impacted the beef cattle industry would realize an increase in returns of over $18 million annually. Results from project 2 are not complete enough to report trends or impacts at this point in time. A significant fact in adopting our concepts to cattle production systems is that capital outlays are generally not required nor is risk increased. In addition the use of fossil fuels would be greatly reduced since hay harvesting and feeding activities are greatly reduced.

    Project objectives:

    The hypothesis to be tested is that labor and purchased inputs can be reduced and sustainability improved by matching lactation (i.e., calving and weaning) with nutrient content of grazed forages and/or extending the grazing season in cow/calf systems. Objectives for testing the hypothesis and providing timely information to beef cattle producers in the Nebraska Sandhills and to other areas where beef production is reliant on range and pasture land include:

    1. Compare total resource use (especially labor, equipment, and feed), production output, and profitability of traditional March calving to a June calving system.

    2. Evaluate weaning systems that reduce inputs of resources and improve profitability of traditional March calving systems.

    3. Educate 250 producers per year about the concept of matching nutritional requirements of cattle to the nutritional content of forages and extending traditional grazing 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.