Stocker grazing is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to traditional cow-calf production in many areas. Two main reasons are that some producers are tired of messing with cows year-round and/or greater profit potential. Many stocker producers, however, are disappointed when they ship cattle and find gains of 1.4 lbs./day instead of the 2+ lbs. they had expected.
The first inclination is to blame poor genetics. I don't buy that excuse. For a stocker to gain 2 lbs./day, it has to consume pretty specific amounts of energy, protein, minerals and water. Most cattle have that genetic potential. If they didn't make the expected gain, it's usually because they didn't get enough of one or more of those nutrients from the pasture and water made available to them.
For the life-long cow-calf producer, a particular pasture may have looked pretty good, but stockers' higher nutritional requirements mean "cow-quality" pasture might not be good enough. Either the forage was too mature or it just wasn't good enough pasture to supply the energy and protein levels required for 2 lbs./day gain.
Maybe calves always looked good coming off that pasture, but how did the cows look? The beauty of cows is they can take a low-quality pasture and still produce a good calf. They might look rough at weaning, but as long as they have a few months to recover before their next calf is born, they will be fine.
Stockers, however, don't have mama to buffer the low-quality forage; they're on their own. As a result, stocker pastures should be kept less mature, contain more legumes and avoid toxicity problems.
Many producers rotationally graze stockers and believe it will automatically provide the magical 2-lb. daily gain. While most producers recognize a good pasture when the cattle go into a new pasture, most don't recognize when to remove them.
In a number of trials at the University of Missouri Forage Systems Research Center, we measured forage intake and found it to be 20-25% correlated with pre-grazing forage availability but 80-85% correlated with post-grazing residual. In other words, when it comes to determining performance, the forage left in the pasture when you take the cattle out is 3-4 times more important than the forage when the cattle went in.
Almost everywhere I go in the country I've observed stocker graziers take their pastures too short. The operations I see consistently achieving more than 2 lbs./day of gain are leaving significantly taller residuals. Rather than graze it to 2 in., leave it at 4 in. and you might be shocked at the difference in gains.
How long stockers stay on your pasture also will make a big difference in overall gain. Through the Midwest and Upper South, stocker programs generally begin in March or April with cattle frequently staying on pasture through September. If you believe stockers gain at a constant rate throughout the season, guess again.
Numerous studies in Missouri and other states show 85% of gain comes in the first 90-100 days on pasture. In our research, we weighed cattle every 21 or 28 days, which allowed us to determine when performance changes occurred. In a 150-day stocker program, calves might gain 2-3 lbs./day for the first 90 days and less than 1 lb./day for the last 60 days. You made money the first three months and lost money the final two.
Most stocker graziers just get a beginning and ending weight and don't know when the gain occurred. In the Deep South, most gain occurs by mid June. In the Upper South and Midwest, most gain occurs before mid July.
Gains remain higher and steadier longer in the North and Intermountain West. But, the season is short and pastures frequently run out of growing weather while the cattle still have growth potential.
If you draw a line from Lincoln, NE, to Washington, D.C., the area south of that line has summer stocker performance limited by high nighttime temperatures. This region is also where endophyte-infected tall fescue dominates. The combination of high temperatures and fescue toxicity makes it difficult to maintain stocker performance for much of the year. Even on non-fescue pastures, it's difficult to keep stocker gains above 1.5 lbs./day through the summer months in this region due to heat stress.
My bottomline tips for successful stocker grazing are: graze stockers only when they're likely to perform in your environment, have stocker quality pastures, and leave taller residuals to maintain high intake level.
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant and lecturer based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208/876-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.