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Grain On The Stump

For four summers now, Steve Redding has put 2¼ lbs. of gain/head/day on mid-weight heifers grazing in the heat of the northern Mississippi summer.

“Instead of ¾ lb./day of gain like I normally get on grass that time of year, I get about 2½ lbs.,” says the Oxford veterinarian and rancher.

His secret is corn, grazed right where it grows.

Redding typically buys 350-lb. heifers in late winter, straightens them out and has them ready for spring green-up. From mid-July to late August, he puts the smaller animals on a 13-acre pasture sown to corn in late March or early April. When the cattle go into the paddock, the corn is usually in the soft-dough stage.

The 13 acres carry about 30 head for 75-90 days. He sends all the cattle to a feedlot, usually at a little under 650 lbs. He says the corn planting costs him about $100/acre, planted in a no-till method by neighbor John Briscoe. Steve Redding and his business partner and uncle, James Redding, background 1-2 potloads of stocker cattle/year. Steve Redding believes the returns easily outweigh the inputs.

“You can figure it at almost three calves to the acre and a gain of 2-2½ lbs./day,” he says.

At a minimum of 75 days, Redding is putting about 170 lbs. of gain each on 30 animals, for a total of 5,100 lbs., or 390 lbs./acre. Depending on how you figure the gain value, Redding's pastured corn appears to be turning a good profit against the $100 cost of establishment.

The research agrees

In fact, Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers recently found similar results when they studied the methods and productivity of pastured corn. Their steers gained 2 lbs./day and the corn produced 200 grazing days/acre.

At three locations, two in north Mississippi and one in Tennessee, the researchers used a summer-grazing period typically lasting 50-80 days. Stocking rates in the trials varied from 3-6 head/acre. Like Redding's operation, MSU researchers planted no-till corn into existing pastureland.

In most cases, the steers came off pastured corn and went on to the feedlot for 100 days, posting a solid post-grazing performance of 4½ lbs./head/day. Corn grazing was so successful, however, at one high-yielding location in 2004, researchers actually finished steers on corn pasture with 153 days of grazing. Those animals graded 32.5% Choice and 67.5% Select carcasses.

Despite the potential for finishing cattle on pastured corn, lead researcher Mike Boyd sees corn grazing in the Southeast primarily as a system to improve stocker-calf performance in late summer to early fall. The problem with finishing cattle in the Southeast is the lack of processing facilities, he says.

Respectable economics

The economics of corn grazing weren't well tested in the Mississippi trial. The only analysis compared the group of cattle going from grazed corn to the feedlot with a group going to the feedlot directly from winter ryegrass. The problem with that analysis, Bell says, is the corn-grazed cattle probably don't need 100 days in the feedlot.

The MSU research was the largest corn-grazing project of late, but other studies provide some interesting economics that might be applied:

  • In Kentucky research from 2002, steers grazing corn had a positive net return of $21.04/head with a cost of gain of 34¢/lb. This compared with steers fed a corn feedlot-type ration that lost $10.45/head and had a cost of gain of 65¢/lb.

  • In Ohio research published in 1998, 39 Angus heifers grazed Baldridge Grazing Maize from Sept. 15 to Nov. 10. The heifers started at 789 lbs. and gained 121 lbs. in 56 days, averaging almost 2.2 lbs./day. Cost per acre totaled $129, and Ohio researchers calculated a net return of $224/acre.

  • Minnesota research published in 2002 compared corn grazing with machine harvesting of corn. Researchers there estimated profits from corn grazing at $347/acre and profits from corn harvest at $23/acre.

  • Pennsylvania researchers determined the ideal time to graze standing corn is at the milk-dough stage. Their calculations for economic yield from grazing showed corn at the silking stage averaged $260/acre, while the corn in the milk-dough stage averaged $334/acre.

If these profit margins are truly representative, the old age-old standard of “hogging down the corn,” might become the cattleman's combine of the future.

Alan Newport is a freelance agricultural writer from Carnegie, OK.

Cattle size and age matters

Heavier, older cattle usually gain the most from corn grazing.

Retired Mississippi State University researcher Mike Boyd says cattle above 750 lbs. do best, especially as the corn matures. Lighter cattle seem to be less efficient at eating the ears, perhaps because their back teeth are less developed and they're poorer at shelling the corn.

Boyd and other corn graziers say young cattle, when first turned into corn, usually don't know what to do. Mississippi grazier Steve Redding says his calves usually spend the first few hours just wandering the pasture perimeter eating the grass along the edges.

Once cattle begin to eat standing corn, they start with the leaves, then the ends of the ears, then the whole ears, and finally they eat much of the stalks. As they acclimate to the corn, and as it matures, they begin eating the ears first, then the leaves, and finally the stalk above the ear.

“Pastured” corn means pasture

These Mississippi corn graziers are planting corn into pasture, not cropland.

“There's a common misconception among producers that typical pastureland won't produce adequate corn yields; we proved that wasn't the case,” says Mississippi State University's Matt Bell.

He notes the practice of no-till production allows corn to be successfully grown on sloped terrain without the risk of soil erosion.

In this very dry summer, MSU scientists estimated the Reddings' corn yield, if it were harvested, at an average 94 bu.
Alan Newport

Some specifics for growing and grazing corn

Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers recommend high-yielding, Roundup-ready corn varieties and older cattle for corn graziers.

While some corn graziers use grazing-maize varieties, research shows they produce lower grain yield, and thus lower energy and lower animal gains, says MSU graduate student Matthew Bell.

Prior to corn grazing, all the steers came off bermudagrass, switchgrass or fescue.

To eliminate undergrowth, the researchers applied glyphosate (Roundup) when the corn reached V5 to V8 maturity. This is an important step, Bell says, because an understory of pasture forages gives cattle another option for grazing. This cuts grain consumption, which lowers energy intake, reducing average daily gain.

Researchers fertilized with 160 lbs. of actual N/acre, using ammonium nitrate, and put the steers in when the corn was in the late-milk stage. The steers were pulled when the last available corn had been eaten.

Although Oxford, MS, veterinarian Steve Redding simply turns his cattle into the corn and leaves them until everything is gone, most corn graziers prefer strip grazing. It's less wasteful and helps limit corn intake, decreasing the potential for acidosis as the cattle are warming up to the high-energy fodder.

“They really make a mess when you first turn them in,” says researcher Mike Boyd. “I make them clean it up before they go into another paddock.”

Diesel, gas prices continue to fall

The national average price for diesel fell for the fourth straight week for the week ending Sept. 11, says the U.S. Energy Info Administration (EIA). The national average was $2.857, down from $2.967 the previous week.

Meanwhile, gasoline prices continue to plummet, with the national average for regular falling almost 11¢ from the previous week's average to $2.618/gal. on Sept. 11, EIA reports.

Mike O'Connor, president of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association (VPCGA), says in a Sept. 12, USA Today article that gasoline prices are plummeting because “they shouldn't have been that high in the first place. Two reasons they were: fear and speculation.” VPCGA represents gasoline distributors who operate about 4,000 stations.

What's more, O'Connor says $2 gasoline “is more likely than unlikely” if the Gulf of Mexico isn't hit by hurricanes and theres no flare-up of tensions in oil-producing regions.

USDA Extends CRP Grazing

If you're grazing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground, you may have more time than the traditional emergency-grazing deadline of Sept. 30. USDA announced an extended grazing period as late as Nov. 30 in some eligible states.

The 30 eligible states are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

State Farm Service Agency committees and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service state technical committees must agree on the need for the emergency grazing extensions before they're finalized. Once approved, producers in the 30 states may graze CRP land until the following dates in 2006:

  • Oct. 20 — Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

  • Nov. 10 — Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Missouri, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

  • Nov. 30 — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

In mid-July, USDA announced the expansion of eligible CRP acreage for emergency grazing and haying in Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The expanded area radiates 150 miles out from any county approved for emergency haying and grazing in any above-mentioned state.

Additionally, USDA says CRP rental payments will be reduced by only 10% instead of the standard 25% on CRP lands grazed in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is giving producers more time to purchase livestock to replace drought-forced sales of a few years ago.

“Some producers are coming to the end of their four-year replacement period,” says Jason Jordan, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) manager of legislative affairs. “This means ranchers still dealing with horrific effects of the drought will not have to restock their herds until one year after the official end of their drought conditions.”

Horse processing ban passes House

Over the objection of meat groups and USDA, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 503, “The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act,” in early September. The legislation, which prohibits the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption, passed by a vote of 263 to 146. The measure now moves on to the Senate, where an identical measure (S. 1915) awaits action.

The new law effectively would shut down three foreign-owned plants that annually process about 40 million lbs. of horsemeat for human consumption, mostly to Europe and Japan. The three plants include Dallas Crown in Kaufman, TX; Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth; and Cavel International in DeKalb, IL.

With no financial provision in the legislation for care, tens of thousands of unwanted horses presumably will be placed in unregulated horse adoption facilities or abandoned. Lawmakers approved the bill despite a recommendation from the House Ag Committee that no action be taken on it, and despite the Energy and Commerce Committee discharging the measure without a recommendation.

Ag groups supported a bipartisan amendment to H.R. 503 offered by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Collin Peterson (D-MN) that would have ensured sufficient certified sanctuaries to care for abandoned and neglected horses before a ban on processing them could take effect. The amendment failed on a 177-229 vote.

USDA says 65,976 horses were harvested in the U.S. in 2004, and 91,757 in 2005. The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates basic subsistence care for an additional 70,000 horses annually would cost $1,825/horse/year. That's just the first year. Then there are the subsequent years of care, and that for the presumed millions to later join them.

In fact, 32,000 wild horses and burros (many of them more than 10 years old) currently are maintained in pens by the Bureau of Land Management at an annual cost to taxpayers of $160 million/year.

A recent analysis, “The Unintended Consequences of a Ban on the Humane Slaughter (Processing) of Horses in the U.S.,” found a ban on horse processing would actually do more harm to horse welfare in this country. Commissioned by the Animal Welfare Council (, the study by nine university researchers also concluded a horse-processing ban would devastate the horse market by devaluing horses as much as $304/horse.

USDA announces drought aid

USDA announced a $780-million national drought aid package, which includes a $50-million Livestock Assistance Grant Program. States will receive block grants for distribution to livestock producers in counties designated as D3 or D4 on the Drought Monitor anytime between March 7 and Aug. 31. A list of eligibility criteria and eligible counties can be found at

Nearly $700 million of the package will be the result of moving up counter-cyclical payments, with another $30 million in unused conservation funds. USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said, “Today's actions emphasize USDA's commitment to use every resource available to help farmers and ranchers who are impacted by drought.”

Speed Is Commerce

“People aren’t getting into the cattle business because they think you can’t make a living at it. That’s not true,” says Doug Rogers, who owns and operates D&H Cattle Co., LLC, Collins, MS.

In fact, Rogers – a West Point and MBA grad – chose the stocker business because of its potential economic returns.

“I don’t compare my business to other stocker operations. I compare it to other industries in terms of rate of return and profitability,” Rogers explains. “We shoot for a 20% return on investment. Sometimes it’s higher, sometimes lower.”

Rogers modestly cites luck as much as skill, but he’s made money the last 12 years (ever since he started) and at least $50/head the past 10 years.
Rogers basically buys three-weight heifers year-round to straighten out. Key advantages to the operation are the availability and price of these lightweights, and typically plentiful and affordable ryegrass. This part of central Mississippi averages 65 in. of rainfall, and cheap fertilizer in the form of poultry litter, provide plenty of groceries worth the money.

Risk or opportunity?
Most folks consider flyweight, put-together calves among the riskiest cattle-business investments. Rogers sees them as a strategic business hedge.

“I buy light, small cattle, which is in itself a hedge against the market. I have more opportunity to choose when to market,” Rogers explains. “I buy the mismanaged cattle, those born the wrong time of year, sired by the wrong bull, born on the wrong place.”

Besides, Rogers says there are as many health problems with 400- and 500-lb. cattle as with lighter calves, meaning he’s gambling fewer dollars on the same level of risk.

Rogers runs only heifers because they “give him more options.” Their shelf life is longer than steers, for one thing. He’ll sort off a jag of the heifers that will work as replacement heifers and market them at an added premium to the stocker profit he already has in them. He also provides heifer calves to area cutting-horse competitions.

Rogers has a different view on risk and health management than some, too. Unlike those who shy from using modified-live vaccines for lighter calves when they’re under the most stress, he prefers them.

“If I’m going to lose a calf, I want to lose her the first two weeks of ownership rather than the last two weeks,” Rogers says. It’s also the period of time when calves are watched the closest anyway.

For perspective, Rogers receives 100-200 head/week. Calves rest 24 hours, then are evaluated, turned out to small grass traps and given access to hay, water and grass.

Cattle are wormed, branded, tagged and vaccinated. Over the next two weeks, calves will rotate through a series of traps on their way to more weaning and booster vaccinations. They then go out to pasture.

Growing to expand
Rogers has grown his stocker business substantially the past few years to its current level of about 6,000 head, primarily to generate the added income to purchase more property. His aim was to add predictability to his business over the long haul. As in other parts of the world, he explains leases are tougher and more costly to come by these days.

The potential to increase beef production per acre with the same number of acres also drew Rogers to the stocker business. He can turn inventory at least twice/year. “There’s lots of opportunity to turn money faster in this business,” he says.

Rogers grew up in the family’s seedstock and cow-calf operations. By high school, he was learning his way through identifying and doctoring stocker cattle running on some new ground his folks purchased. By the time he graduated from college and had to choose between cattle and some tempting corporate offers, his stocker knowledge was broad and deep enough that he saw the promise of the stocker business as just that, a profitable business opportunity.

“I just do what works for me,” Rogers says. “The name of the game is making money. If I can make $1, I move on and hope my customer can make $2... If I make it or break it, it’s all on me.”

My Top 10 Clicks

DVM, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Mississippi State University (MSU)

  1. www.usaha.orgU.S. Animal Health Association.
  2. www.aabp.orgAmerican Association of Bovine Practitioners.
  3. of Veterinary Consultants.
  4. Organization for Animal Health.
  5. www.promedmail.comProgram for monitoring emerging diseases.
  6. www.aphis.usda.govUSDA APHIS home page.
  7. www.biosecuritycenter.orgNational Biosecurity Resource Center.
  8. of Nebraska Veterinary Education Center.
  9. www.beefusa.orgNational Cattlemen's Beef Association.
  10. Extension Service.