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Flexible grazing: Are you ready to add yearlings to the mix?Flexible grazing: Are you ready to add yearlings to the mix?

New research points to the benefits of incorporating yearling steers to economically and conservatively increase stocker rates during drought years.

Amanda Radke

June 20, 2018

5 Min Read
Flexible grazing: Are you ready to add yearlings to the mix?
Amanda Radke

You know the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” and this quote rings true when drought planning. Seasoned ranchers have often told me if you’re planning for the drought as it’s happening, you’re already two or three years behind when you should have started making a game plan.

For ranchers, we’re not just cattlemen, we’re grass farmers, and getting the most out of every blade of grass is imperative to our sustainability in this business. Overgraze and it’s going to cost you; yet, selling cow-calf pairs because you’re short on forage takes a huge chunk out of next year’s paycheck from the calf crop, as well.

So how do you win at the grazing game? It can be a challenge, especially in a dry year.

As I write this, we received short of a half-inch of rain the day previously, and outside my office windows, I see storm clouds rolling in. I take a minute to say a quick prayer for moisture because it’s far too early in the grazing season for us to see grass turning crisp and brown.

Add that to my worry that our stocking rates aren’t as conservative as in years past, and I’m thinking we’ll be dry-lotting some pairs by August, for sure. With hay prices already climbing, crunching the numbers isn’t looking too great on the balance sheet, but I’m hopeful we can harvest a decent amount of hay in this first cutting, and maybe we won’t have to purchase as much hay as I’m projecting.

READ: 2 keys to calculating stocking rates

In some areas, rain this June has been more than abundant, and in others, drought is just the “four-letter word” that has become the norm. No matter which end of the spectrum your ranch may fall under, successful graziers routinely practice solid management practices each year — no matter what the moisture levels are — to ensure there is adequate grass not just for this year’s grazing season but the upcoming years, as well.

Whether that’s reduced stocking rates, rotational grazing, mob grazing or incorporating cover crops and crop residues into the mix, producers are pretty innovative and creative in finding ways to keep the cattle fed and happy.

In a recent BEEF Watch newsletter, Travis Mulliniks, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) beef cattle nutritionist, discussed ways to optimize forages by using different classes of cattle (mature cows and yearlings) into a flexible management approach.

Mulliniks writes, “A common recommendation in drought prone areas is that breeding herd forage demand should be capped at no more than 50 – 70% of a ranch’s carrying capacity during average rainfall years. This mixed herd can provide the grazing manager needed flexibility to quickly reduce stocking rates to match the reduced forage available on rangelands during drought years.”

He explains that during a drought year, it may be a good time to evaluate management practices that would allow for increased adaptability through fluctuations in annual forage production. This evaluation can then become part of a drought contingency and grazing management plan to help mitigate risk during times of low forage availability.

He explains, “Current recommended strategies for managing in drought prone areas include conservative stocking rates, adequate stockpiled harvested feedstuffs, and adaptive grazing management. Evaluating livestock forage demand in light of precipitation variability, high pasture costs, and availability of crop residue can bring insight into what enterprises may best match available resources.”

Referencing a study conducted at New Mexico State University’s Corona Range and Livestock Research Center, Mulliniks explained how cow-calf producers might benefit from incorporating yearling steers into the operation to match forage resources. The study evaluated the economics of adjusting stocking rates to include yearling steers and how it would impact forage resources over a 40-year span.

READ: What is really good grazing?

According to the Mulliniks, researchers discovered that, “Due to forage availability dynamics in arid and semi-arid environments, a 50:50 forage allocation between cow-calf and yearling enterprises was found to be optimal; however, over time optimal cow numbers would decline as drought conditions force herd reductions.

Due to high variability in forage production, these authors indicate that in some scenarios by the 35th year of this study no cows would be left on the ranch and it would be most profitable to be a complete yearling enterprise. As compared to a cow-calf operation, adding a flexible yearling enterprise to a cow-calf only ranch increased average annual net returns up to 66% with flexible grazing.”

If you’ve always run pairs, you may be raising an eyebrow at the idea of transitioning your business model to run yearlings. However, these researchers concluded that herd expansion beyond a conservative level should occur with yearlings due to the expense relative to the short-term gain of adjusting cow herd numbers.

Mulliniks writes, “Although this study was conducted in a semi-arid environment with on average 15 inches of precipitation a year, managing with a mixed enterprise of flexible grazers can be applied across differing environments. This article doesn’t suggest how to implement a flexible grazing strategy; rather, the economic benefit of incorporating one into a cow-calf operation. This ratio of cow-calf and yearling enterprises or other flexible grazers may look different depending on a producers’ resources. The optimal mix of cows and flexible grazers would be dependent on cost of production for each enterprise. Flexible grazers could include developing more heifers at a low-cost, low-input system, yearling steers, or even purchasing thin open cull cows and rebreeding them.”

Certainly, a flexible grazing enterprise with a focus on yearling steers does not fit into every business model.

READ: Drought-driven creative thinking leads to innovative water system for cattle

“A yearling operation can increase production costs and financial risk, which may not justify the potential added net returns for a risk-adverse producer,” said Mulliniks. “However, the use of flexible grazers is a management tool that cow-calf producers should consider adding to their operation as part of a drought risk management plan to increase management flexibility and profitability.”

I doubt our seedstock operation will be adding yearlings to the mix anytime soon, unless you count replacement heifers; however, this could be a reasonable approach for commercial producers in drought-prone areas to help get the most out of every blade of grass.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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