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Some Tips For Adjusting To The New Economic Reality

Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State University Extension educator in Athens County, asks in the latest Ohio Beef Cattle Letter if the high input prices of today

Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State University Extension educator in Athens County, asks in the latest Ohio Beef Cattle Letter if the high input prices of today are an aberration, a temporary fluctuation or permanent? He then offers these perspectives, gleaned from the discussions among speakers and producers attending a recent two-night Extension short course, on the “new economic reality” facing cattle producers:

Pasture/Hay – The days of cheap forage are gone. Just looking at the nutrient removal costs in a ton of hay will push hay prices to over $70/ton. By the time machinery costs and labor are figured in, $100/ton is about the breakeven price of producing hay. This has several management implications.

First, grazing management becomes more important. The forage produced in your pasture is not a cheap forage, it should be valued at least the equivalent of hay. Livestock harvesting of forage is much more economical than machine harvesting. Given these statements, what can be done to utilize this resource more effectively? Here are some suggestions:

  • Increase the number of paddocks on the farm. More paddocks on a given area means smaller paddock size. Putting the same number of animals into a smaller space increases stocking density. Increased stocking density results in more uniform grazing, better forage utilization and more uniform manure distribution.

    This can help to increase pasture organic matter content. Increasing the organic matter content by 1% adds 20,000 lbs. of organic matter/acre to the soil. Organic matter can hold up to 90% of its weight in water. So a 1% increase in soil organic matter can result in an additional 2000+ gals. of water/acre.

    In addition, each percent of organic matter in the soil releases on a per-acre basis 20-30 lbs. of nitrogen (N), 4.5-6.6 lbs. of phosphorus, and 2-3 lbs. of sulfur/year.

  • Use soil sampling to make more effective and efficient use of purchased fertilizer. Grazing animals move nutrients and concentrate nutrients in pasture areas, particularly if paddock size is large and/or stocking density is low. Even if pastures aren’t divided into smaller paddock subdivisions, divide the pasture into smaller soil-sampling units.

    The idea is to do some type of grid sampling that will permit variable rates of fertilizer to be spread across a pasture according to need. Soil sampling is cheaper than either over- or under-applying fertilizer over a large area.

  • Add legumes to the pasture mix. A paddock containing 25-30% evenly distributed legumes, such as red or white clover, will provide the N needs for the grass and eliminate the need for purchased N fertilizer.

  • Develop a plan to protect the sod base during periods when soils are saturated with moisture. This could be either a heavy use-feeding pad or a specific sacrifice pasture paddock. The advantage of a heavy use-feeding pad is that it will allow you to move and spread manure to other areas of the farm.
Since hay is no longer a cheap feed, what can be done to reduce waste and loss of that feed source? How can hay be used more effectively? Some suggestions include:
  • Look at how hay is being stored. The greatest loss occurs when stored in the open on the ground. A first step is to get it off the ground. Stone or pallets can be used. As storage that provides some cover further reduces losses, it may be economical to build a storage structure.

  • Reduce feeding waste. Use hay savers in bale rings. Consider feeding on a heavy-use pad. Feed smaller amounts of hay at one time.

  • Make use of hay testing. When feed and mineral were less expensive, over-supplementing had smaller economic consequences. Hay quality should be matched to animal nutrient requirements. A small investment in hay testing can pay some big returns.

  • Feed low-quality hay after weaning. For many spring-calving herds that means September. Let your pastures stockpile during this time. Stockpiled forage is typically higher quality than most of the first-cutting grass hay in our area. Use this stockpiled forage in the winter.
Alternative Forages – Annual forages can provide options to help get pasture paddocks re-seeded and can fill in cool-season pasture production gaps. The downside to annual forage use is they require some type of soil preparation, there’s an annual seed cost, and some additional management skills often have to be practiced to take full advantage of their production. Some suggestions to consider include:
  • Brown mid-rib (BMR) sorghum x sudangrass or sudangrass forages planted in late May can be ready for grazing in early to mid-July. In one on-farm trial in Athens County in 2007, BMR sudangrass grazed from mid-July through the end of August yielded 3,000 lbs. dry matter in each of two grazing passes. Forage quality was 20% crude protein with a TDN value of 68.

    With more intensive strip grazing, 3-4 grazing passes should be possible. It fills in the cool-season grass summer slump. Surplus forage could be chopped and put into silage bags or baled and wrapped as baleage.

  • Forage turnips can be planted in April through early May and will provide grazing about 6 weeks after germination. Frequent, short- duration grazing can be used to provide several grazing passes, again helping to fill in the summer-slump period.

  • Annual ryegrass can be planted in torn-up areas to provide quick cover and allow grazing about 4 weeks after germination. Frequent, short-duration grazing is the way to manage.

  • Corn silage is a high-quality feedstuff that’s often cheaper than hay with a better energy content. The best situation is to contract with a crop producer to grow some silage corn, chop it and then bag it in a silage bag on your farm. Bunk feeding is the best method to get good feed utilization.

  • Six years of work with summer planted oats in Fairfield County have demonstrated that oats may be the most productive alternative forage option available; under the right conditions. Oats work very well doubled-cropped after wheat. When planted in the late-July through late-August timeframe, oats put growth into leaves and don’t produce seed.
Oats can be grazed through the winter months; some producers harvest oat forage for hay, or cut and wrap as a baleage product. Quality analysis shows oats hold on to the quality they had at the point when growth is stopped due to freezing weather.

It doesn’t appear that oats can be no-till seeded into an existing pasture sod and expected to produce the same tonnage as oats after wheat. So, at this point, unless oats can be planted under a tillage situation or no-tilled into a field where there will not be sod competition, it may be best to look at other options.

Grain and Byproduct Feeds – In times of short forage supplies and expensive hay, grains and byproduct feeds such as distillers grains, soy hulls and wheat midds may provide more economical options to feed beef cattle. However, even these byproduct feeds fluctuate in price and availability. In order to make best use of grain and byproduct feeds; consider the following suggestions:
  • Corn grain, even at $5/bu., is often the most economical feed choice to stretch limited hay supplies and a better buy than purchased hay. Corn contains about twice the energy of hay, so when nutrients are compared on a cost/lb. of dry matter basis, corn is more economical. Thought needs to be given about how to feed corn. Feeding underneath an electric wire is an effective means of reducing waste to virtually zero. Another option is bunk feeding.

  • If byproduct feeds are going to be an option in the feeding program, they must be bought at a low point in their price cycle, which often isn’t when the extra feed is needed. Therefore, storage is necessary.

  • Is it time to think about bunk feeders? Bunk feeders allow more feeding options – for grain, byproducts, corn silage and chopped forages. If a beef producer is committed to feeding the lowest cost ration during times when grazing isn't possible and/or hay supplies are limited, then bunk feeders allow many different kinds of alternative feeds to be fed with the greatest efficiency and least amount of waste.
Cattle – Much attention has been focused on alternatives and options within a conventional spring cow-calf operation. Are there changes to examine on the animal side in light of these new economic realities? Some suggestions to consider include:
  • Fall calving. Could moving to fall calving increase productivity and profitability? Some justifications might include: generally more favorable weather conditions, such as less mud, and warmer temperatures, as well as more favorable temperature conditions to re-breed cows/higher conception rates, and good use of stockpiled forages.

  • Forage-based genetics. Make sure your cows have the genetics and/or are adapted to growing and being productive on a forage base without needing supplementation. Frame scores should be moderate. Large animals have higher maintenance requirements compared to smaller animals.
Go to to read the entire April 16 issue.
-- Rory Lewandowski, from the OSU Beef Cattle Letter