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Articles from 2015 In February


Pacific Coast labor agreement positive for beef

Pacific Coast labor agreement positive for beef

The tentative agreement this week between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union finally unshackled Pacific Coast ports from the labor dispute which had bogged down U.S. exports and imports since last May.

“Since we began to see increasing congestion in the West Coast ports several months ago, the global customer base that the U.S. meat industry has spent decades building has been put at risk by shipping delays and by the uncertainty surrounding these contract negotiations,” explained Philip Seng, U.S. Meat Export Federation president and CEO. “With nearly 80% or our waterborne red meat exports utilizing West Coast ports, this situation had become very damaging not only for exporters, but also for farmers, ranchers, processors and everyone in the supply chain.”
 

“As the port situation is resolved, it will help not just U.S. beef exports but also U.S. beef imports, which rely on the same infrastructure,” say Steve Meyer and Len Steiner in Tuesday’s Daily Livestock Report. “In 2014, West Coast ports accounted for 38.5% of beef and veal export volume (excluding variety meats). About 34% of Australian and New Zealand beef that comes to the U.S. also enters through West Coast ports.”

The value of beef exports to the U.S. cattle and beef industries is magnified as beef slogs through the seasonal lull of domestic demand.

“Demand in the domestic market remains critical for the U.S. beef industry and so far the domestic demand situation does not appear very positive,” Meyer and Steiner say. “Winter weather has certainly played a role, especially on foodservice demand. Foodservice data is released with a lag but our discussions with end users imply a significant slowdown in sales. One indicator of poor foodservice business is the dramatic increase in the spread between imported and domestic grinding beef. Most imported grinding beef is sold at foodservice. At this point, the spread between 90CL imported beef and 90CL domestic product is a tremendous 66 cents per pound (-23% discount for imported beef). Maybe warmer spring days will fix some of this, but for now, the lost foodservice business remains a major challenge.”

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Challenges converge on U.S. meats

beef cattle truck

“A myriad of factors are joining forces to create significant challenges for beef, pork and poultry markets so far in 2015,” says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist, in his weekly market comments. “These include supply and demand factors, domestic and international factors, and short- and long-term factors. Many of the factors are affecting all meat markets while others are specific to individual meats.”
 
There are challenges to U.S. meat exports, for one thing. Part of it has to do with the strongest U.S. dollar in years, making domestic products more expensive abroad, even if the inherent price remained the same.

“Meat exports are being further disrupted by the backlog at West Coast ports. The inability to move perishable product out of the ports has resulted in reduced export demand and diversion of meat back into domestic markets,” Peel explains. “Settlement of the labor dispute this past week will improve conditions but it will take several weeks for port operations to return to normal.”

At the same time, Peel points to the severity of recent winter storms, which have disrupted supply chains and consumer shopping. Then, there are increasing supplies of competing meats while U.S. beef production is poised to decline again in 2015.

“Pork production is increasing rapidly with planned expansion enhanced by smaller-than-expected impacts from Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv),” Peel explains. Pork production is expected to increase 4%-5% in 2015. With little growth in pork exports expected, the majority of the increased production will be consumed domestically. Abundant supplies of European pork are finding their way into many global markets, increasing the competition for U.S. pork. Wholesale pork values are falling; sharply lower hog prices may curtail production at some point but not likely before the end of the year or into 2016.”
 

Lower feed costs and higher anticipated returns are also increasing poultry production.  Peel explains broiler production will likely grow by 5% this year. Like pork, though, he explains stagnant export growth means more of the increased production must be consumed domestically.

“The challenges for the beef industry are particularly troublesome,” Peel says. “Beef production is expected to decrease another 1% in 2015, in addition to the nearly 6% decline in 2014. Yet, the pressure for higher beef prices that accompanies limited supplies is running headlong into weaker export demand, aggravated by the strong dollar; domestic market disruptions and growing pork and poultry supplies that sharpen the competition among meat in the domestic market.”

 

 

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Weather and bearish sentiment pressure calf and feeder prices

Weather and bearish sentiment pressure calf and feeder prices

In a week of weather-curtailed receipts—especially in the Southeast and Southwest—yearlings traded $2-$5/cwt. lower, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Calves sold unevenly steady.

“Pressure still looms over the market with neither buyers nor sellers content. About the only market participant satisfied is someone who sold cattle two months ago,” AMS analysts explained.  

Although cattle futures sparked higher after the middle of the week, it was too little, too late to buoy cash prices.

“For the most part, cattle futures have remained unresponsive to anything that can be construed as positive,” AMS analysts say. “We have lost the fund positions in the cattle futures. The relentless buying that drove the market last year has stopped.”

The week began with plenty of reasons for the market bears to cheer. There were more cattle placed on feed in January than expected, according to the monthly Cattle on Feed report. The frozen beef supply was 10% higher month-to-month (Jan. 31). It was 14% higher year-to-year, according to last Friday’s monthly Cold Storage report. Frozen pork supplies surged 18% higher month-to-month. Total frozen red meat supplies and total frozen poultry supplies were 5% more than the same time a year earlier.

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“Worries about demand for relatively high-priced beef in the face of growing supplies of cheaper pork and poultry continue to weigh on the cattle market,” John Otte, Penton market analyst, explains. “Analysts anticipate food shoppers will trade down to the less-expensive proteins. If retailers resist paying further gains for wholesale beef, processors have fewer dollars to pay feedlots for live cattle.”

Through Friday afternoon, cash fed cattle trade had been scattered through the week at $1-$4 lower than the previous week, but there were too few transactions to trend.

Yet, resurgent wholesale beef values ended up being a significant bright spot during the week, helping to pull Live Cattle futures an average of $1.73 higher week-to-week.

Choice boxed beef cutout value was $7.27/cwt. higher week-to-week, ending Friday at $247.58/cwt. Select boxed beef cutout value was $7.78 higher week-to-week, closing on Friday at $245.57.

“Hopes that processors will pay higher prices in negotiated sales in the days ahead also supported gains (futures), as retailers and grocery stores have paid sharply higher prices for steaks, loins and other beef cuts this week,” Otte says. “The optimism over demand also brought into focus the wide premium between prices cattle are currently fetching compared with those expected to face producers in the spring, when buying interest tends to pick up for traditional grilling meats.”


Looking a little further ahead, Otte noted on Friday, “The nearly $12 discount from February fed cattle futures to April cattle futures is starting to look like it might be a little too large, particularly if supplies remain tight and good grazing permits cow-calf producers to retain more heifers to expand herds.”
 

 

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Meat Market Update | Choice cutout gains ground ahead of spring grilling season

Ed Czerwien, USDA Market News reporter in Amarillo, TX, provides us with the latest outlook on boxed beef prices and the weekly cattle trade.

News regarding the Choice box beef cutout was positive in all respects. The Choice cutout was higher with improved volume in all segments on the heels of the steady improvement that we have been watching on the daily cutout during the last week.  Prices for Choice rib and loin are just starting to improve and will be following their normal seasonal increases as we prepare for the spring grilling season.

Find more cattle price news here or bookmark our commodity price page for the minute-by-minute updates.

 

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Obama’s veto of the XL pipeline sends a message

Obama’s veto of the XL pipeline sends a message

The XL pipeline was supposed to be the low-hanging fruit for this new Congress. Surveys show the public overwhelmingly supports its construction. The six-year approval process for the pipeline had become a mockery, and government studies couldn’t stall the project any longer. Even the labor unions, a key Democrat constituency anxious for the 40,000-plus jobs the project would create, were in support.

What’s more, the project represents a giant step toward moving to North American energy independence and reduces our dependence on foreign oil. The project eventually would even reduce the pressure on our allies that are reliant on Russian oil, and have been forced to stand idly by as Russia invades its neighbors.

The pipeline vote in this new Congress that delivered a bill for signing to Obama’s desk was amazingly bipartisan. A total of 29 Democrats joined Republicans in the House to pass the measure, and nine Democrats in the Senate (over 25% of their party) joined every Republican in passing the bill by a filibuster-proof majority of 62-36.

The measure wasn’t only bipartisan in Congress but, according to a recent CNN poll, it had overwhelming support in almost every single demographic. Only those people who described themselves as liberals opposed the pipeline and that opposition was only in the single digits. 

Thus, this was it. There is no other issue of any significance that enjoys so much general agreement. This was the moment that Obama would signal whether he would work with Republicans to advance bipartisan initiatives or continue to wage war on anyone not part of his agenda. So Obama has sent his message, and virtually no one now expects Congress to be able to do anything substantive or address any significant issues. 

Obama’s recalcitrance is hard to fathom. He has presided over the largest decline in the number of eligible workers actually working in modern history, and spent billions of dollars that failed to create jobs. The pipeline offered 40,000 jobs, admittedly many of which would only last during the 2-plus years of building it, but they would come without having to spend one government dollar. 

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This was a message. It’s the message that Obama has no desire to work with the opposition, or even the moderates within his own party. He’s made it clear that he will continue to act unilaterally. From immigration to Keystone, Obama has signaled that he has every intention of circumventing Congress. What’s more, he doesn’t believe that Republicans can stop him from acting as both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government. 

It has taken us a long time but our nation has come full circle. In the earliest days of the formation of our great republic, some wanted to establish George Washington, the hero of our American Revolution, as a king or monarch. He wisely declined and more thoughtful minds prevailed. Today, however, we have in Obama a president who has declared himself to be just that.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com and the Penton Agriculture Group.
 

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The beef industry carried a knife to a dietary guidelines gunfight

It’s been known for quite some time that the process of updating the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans was not about science. Like most things in Washington D.C., it is quintessentially all about politics.

The environmental, animal welfare, anti-corporate, anti-livestock, and nutrition lobbies have all coalesced around one goal. And they have co-opted – for the purpose of pushing that agenda – the war on obesity, the war on cancer, the war on diabetes, etc., as their moral high ground, with active support from the current administration.

It was a recipe for disaster, and yet we stubbornly stood our ground, relying on sound science and hundreds of years of nutritional information to hopefully carry the day for us. Predictably, as when one takes a knife to a gunfight, you’re destined to be on the losing side of the battle.

I’ve been amazed by all the quotes emanating from cattlemen in the wake of the release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee’s report that cut red meat from its recommendations to USDA. Incensed cattlemen are declaring that the Obama administration had declared war on their livelihood, but it’s akin to Ukrainians announcing they believe Russia has intentions on part of their land base.

Everyone I’ve talked to seemed to be aware of the politics of the situation, knew that the science had been rejected and political agendas were running the process; and they acknowledged that we were not at the table when that shift occurred. The bottom line is that we knew we were going to go down to defeat; the only thing in question was the extent of that defeat.

It’s not an overstatement to say that this was a devastating blow to the beef industry. While a less politically motivated administration and a more science-based process will undoubtedly bring sanity back to the process, it should never have been allowed to get this far. I know the “good” work that all of the industry people have done, and understand that the scientific community has increasingly been in our favor with the overwhelming tone of recent science being more and more advantageous to beef and meat in general.

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There’s a growing consensus and understanding that meat is not just part of a healthy diet but perhaps a vital component! Additionally, the scientific community is acknowledging that the research and past emphasis on creating bad foods and good foods has failed, and that the emphasis should be on good diets versus bad diets. The federal dietary guidelines have played a key role in shifting red meat consumption downward, but that has not resulted in a decrease in obesity, cancer, heart disease or anything else that it promised.  

I’ve taken a number of nutritional classes, but I’m certainly not an expert. Yet, even I know what I need to do. I should decrease the amount of sugar and number of sodas I consume, reduce my caloric intake and increase the amount of exercise I do. But here’s a news flash – until I have to move up a pant size, I’m going to continue to enjoy my potato chips and cola.  

We need new advocates

The industry has the wrong advocates for this fight. Yes, we need the nutritionists and scientists putting forth sound science to counter the opposition’s pseudo-science and agenda-driven claims. Yes, it’s productive to have cattle producers talking about their lifestyle, the way they take care of their animals and the land. And, yes, we need to share the sustainability message and have producers out there telling our story.

We’re busy at my place this week preparing for our annual bull sale. We’re proud of our product and are confident that our genetics will contribute to our customers’ bottom line. However, we can’t be the only ones advocating for our bulls.

Yes, we have many unaffiliated, third-party scientists verifying the data and claims from land grant universities, to the Beef Improvement Federation, to national genetic evaluation programs conducted by breed associations. We have veterinarians do our breeding soundness exams, trained technicians take our ultrasound data, and certified labs that evaluate them. We pull DNA, we ID every bull by sire and test them through certified labs for health, etc. But that isn’t enough.

We also tell our story, and we hopefully are great advocates as we believe in and understand our product. But it is our customers who have the most impact; it’s their words and testimonials that drive other customers to our sale.

On a wider industry scale, it should be no different. Ours is not a battle based solely on data; the key is getting people to understand and embrace the data. That means marketing it and presenting it in a way they trust. That means that, as an industry, we need to get our customers to speak out for our product.

We need that eastern liberal who wrote a book about the lies she had been told about fat, and what she discovered. We need those consumers waiting in line at that steakhouse in New York, the barbecue place in Atlanta, the Walmart in Los Angeles, or the chef in Chicago who consume and love our product.

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We need those people who understand that a politically based, agenda-driven process is trying to tell them that they can’t enjoy their steak, their hamburger or even their hot dog. They need to say, “Enough is enough.” 

For all of Albert Einstein’s accomplishments, he’s probably most famous for this quote – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” As an industry, we continue to fight these public relation battles with sound science and as the guys in the white cowboy hats. These approaches have their place, but we continue to lose.

We need to understand the battle we’re fighting and start to use our greatest asset – the consumers of our product. We don’t just need to utilize them to take our message forward, but we must elicit them to fight those who are attempting to eliminate our livelihood. 

If this embarrassing defeat over the dietary guidelines doesn’t start the conversation about how we’re going to get sound science and our story out there in a much more effective manner, than I don’t believe it will happen. If our industry leadership doesn’t drastically reform its strategy after this latest defeat when consumer momentum and scientific data was decidedly shifting in our favor, then perhaps it is time for new leadership.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com and the Penton Agriculture Group.
 

 

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Experts say ranching done right improves the environment and wildlife habitat

ranchers help environment not hurt it

The Society for Range Management (SRM) and ranchers and range professionals who participate in SRM are doing wonderful things with grazing to improve rangeland and plant biodiversity. The problem is that the public does not know anything about it.

After spending two days at this informative meeting in Sacramento, Calif., I read a very negative article on cattle wrecking rangeland in a recent issue of Harper’s magazine. These types of articles lead the public to believe that cattle should be removed from public lands.

Yet, the SRM meeting featured many sessions that showed how well managed grazing can provide habitat for wildlife. The water sources that ranchers provide for their cattle also provide water for endangered species such as the California Condor. Both our industry and SRM need to better communicate with the public on environmental stewardship.

Several speakers explained that humans have influenced the ecology of the rangeland for centuries. Chuck Striplen, an environmental scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and Aquatic Science Center and a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, explained how the historical use of rangeland needs to be studied. He says that western rangelands have never been a pristine wilderness untouched by humans. We have forgotten the original effects of Native Americans on the land and ecology, and learning about the long-term historical effects of humans on rangeland can aid in the development of best management practices, he says.

Lynn Huntsinger, a California rancher and UCB professor of environmental science, explains that maintenance of ranches will prevent loss of valuable ecosystems. When ranches are maintained, the land will not be sold for development. In her talk, she explained how stock ponds have served as habitat for endangered Tiger Salamanders.

4 steps to coexist with predators

The SRM meeting also featured a half-day session on ways for ranchers to co-exist with predators. One of the most interesting sessions at the conference, Kent Reeves of Whole Picture Consulting; Hillary Zaranek, a Montana cattle rancher; and Matt Barnes, executive director of Keystone Conservation, all discussed ways to co-exist with wolves. These are four basic principles I have summarized from the entire session.

1.  All dead carcasses and sick, weak animals must be removed. They should be immediately taken far away from areas where cattle or sheep are grazed. Everybody agreed on this. Dead carcasses attract predators, and may encourage them to develop a taste for beef or lamb.

2. Indiscriminant killing of wolves or coyotes is a bad idea. Wolves and coyotes form stable territories. Individual packs will develop a taste for different specific foods. A wolf pack that dines on elk and leaves cattle alone will keep other wolf packs out. This same principle applies to coyotes.

The best approach is to remove individual problem animals or a male and female pair that are caught in the act of killing cattle or sheep. Years ago, I learned about this same idea from a Colorado rancher named Dayton O. Hyde. In 1970s and ’80s, people thought his ideas were crazy. Today, those ideas are being accepted. Killing a predator that avoids cattle is very counterproductive.

3. Cattle need to learn to herd and flock together and “stand their ground” when confronted by wolves or coyotes. Isolated animals that are running away become easy prey.

Zaranek explained that wolves prefer elk that run; that’s why cattle need to bunch up in the presence of predators. The great herds of bison that once roamed the Plains would form in a group to provide protection from predators. It is the presence of predators that trigger that instinct.

Reeves and Zaranek both discussed the need to “re-wild” cattle and “rekindle” that herd instinct to bunch together and stand their ground rather than run. An attempt to force cattle into a tight bunch does NOT work, as the cattle will scatter as soon as the cowboys leave. A better approach is to use Bud Williams’ low-stress methods to trigger the natural bunching instinct.

When handlers move back and forth on the edge of the pressure zone, like a border collie does, it can trigger the innate instinct in cattle to bunch up. Cattle that bunch in “soft bunches” can easily graze. Soft bunching as a herd is not panicked milling where cattle move in a circle and the strongest animals force their way into the center of the milling mob.

Rekindling the natural herding instinct is not forcing the cattle together. The principle is to move back and forth in a straight line on the edge of the collective pressure zone. This is the zone where the handler is close enough so the cattle are aware of his/her presence but he/she hasn’t penetrated the flight zone to make the herd move away.  The pressure zone is the area just outside the edge of the flight zone.

4. Human presence is important, as wolves and coyotes will usually avoid areas where people are present. Riding the range is another effective deterrent. Ranchers who have developed a good relationship with wildlife biologists also get information on where wolf packs are located so cattle can be moved to safer areas.

There were also two sessions on protecting sheep from wolves.  Brian Bean of Idaho’s Lava Lake Land and Livestock, and Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm in Auburn, Calif., both agree that a herder must be present near the flock. They’ve also learned that llamas and donkeys are effective for coyotes but do not work for wolves.

Typically, these ranchers will use five or six Great Pyrenees guard dogs. More dogs are not recommended because they fight. The puppies must be raised with the sheep, so they will stay with the sheep.

Every night the flock is moved to a new bed ground and electric fence with dangling plastic flags is put up around it. One innovative herder discussed that marking his territory around the bed area with his own urine helped keep predators out.  He was using the same methods wolves and coyotes use to mark their territory.

Temple Grandin is an animal behaviorist and a professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Animal Science.

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Industry At A Glance: Beef exports add a big bump to fed cattle value

Industry At A Glance: Beef exports add a big bump to fed cattle value

By all measures, 2014 was unprecedented from a cattle market standpoint. There were several drivers behind the fed market’s streak to $170 trade in late November. Beef exports were among the most critical components serving to bolster fed trade to new highs.

Export market value in 2014 established a new annual record: $6.98 billion. That’s the equivalent of $341/head for every fed steer and heifer marketed in the U.S. – or roughly $27/cwt. in added value to the market. Alternatively, growth in international trade has added $25/cwt. to the fed market since 2004 when beef export value bottomed following BSE. That accomplishment is the direct result of years of patience and hard work. The investment in global trade pays excellent dividends for beef producers.

Beef trade is NOT as responsive to changes in foreign exchange, compared to grain, dairy and other agricultural products. However, a stronger dollar does threaten U.S. beef’s relative value in the global marketplace. Typically, a sustained rise in the value of the dollar will result in exports waning going forward (a stronger dollar reduces the relative value of foreign currency thereby making U.S.-sourced products more expensive). Meanwhile, if country-of-origin labeling (COOL) is not resolved in a satisfactory manner, trade with our NAFTA partners (the largest buyers of U.S. beef) could become problematic.

beef exports value

What’s your perception of foreign trade for the beef industry – and its value to beef producers? How do you perceive foreign exchange shaping up in the year to come? Will the dollar get even stronger and potentially hamper U.S. beef exports? Do you think the COOL issue will be resolved to help ensure that normal trade relations remain intact with Canada and Mexico?

Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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Research finds small square bale feeders most efficient for horses

The three small square bale feeders used in the study are left to right the Equine Hay Basket Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment Dunnville KY The Natural Feeder Story City IA Horse Bunk Feeder and Hay Rack Priefert Manufacturing Mount Pleasant TXPhoto credit Krishona Martinson University of Minnesota
<p>The three small square- bale feeders used in the study are, left to right, the Equine Hay Basket, Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment, Dunnville, KY; The Natural Feeder, Story City, IA; Horse Bunk Feeder and Hay Rack, Priefert Manufacturing, Mount Pleasant, TX.</p> <p><br /> Photo credit: Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota</p>

Small square bale feeders can cut hay waste by up to 12% and pay for themselves within a year when hay prices are strong, according to a University of Minnesota (UM) study.

The UM study compared the amount of hay wasted by horses feeding from basket, hayrack and slat feeders to that lost when no feeders were used in paddocks. Bodyweight changes were also examined.

The feeders are “a viable option for horse owners looking to save money and reduce the amount of hay their horses may be wasting,” says Amanda Grev, the UM graduate student who led the study.

The three feeders used represent options readily available and marketed to horse owners, she adds. All help keep forage off the ground so it can’t be trampled or contaminated by excrement.

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The slat feeder wasted only 1% of the hay fed; the basket feeder, 3%. Horses feeding at the hayrack wasted 5% of the hay, and horses fed hay without a feeder lost 13% of their hay.

The slat feeder, Grev says, was most restrictive. “Horses cannot fully immerse their noses and grab large mouthfuls of hay,” so feed intake was slightly less than that of the other two feeders. The basket and hayrack feeders brought small weight gains.

Waste could increase if hay was fed on an unlimited basis, Grev and her co-authors predict. In the study, 12 horses were divided into three, four-horse herds rotated through four paddocks with two daily feedings at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Horses were fed grass hay at 2.5% of herd bodyweight.

The extra hay savings that the $349 slat feeder provided brought a payback at about 9 months. The basket feeder, at $372, took about 11 months to pay for itself, while the $280 hayrack, with the most hay waste, took just less than a year to pay back. A $250/ton hay price was used in the calculations.

Herds gained an average of 22 pounds using the basket feeder, and 15 pounds using the hayrack. They lost up to 7 pounds using the slat feeder and 24 pounds when fed without a feeder.

Don’t put much stock into herd bodyweight results, however, Grev warns. The data collection periods were only 5 days long, and the horses may have consumed all hay if fed at 12- hour increments.

Nick Paulson is a freelance writer based in Minnetonka, Minn.

 

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Move over, corn silage; forage sorghums have arrived

Move over, corn silage; forage sorghums have arrived

The trend is real. Parts of the High Plains, particularly the Southern Plains, are running short on water. But just because the trend is real doesn’t mean it’s irreversible.

“If there’s been a silver lining to the drought we’ve had the last three to four years, at least in the Panhandle of Texas, it’s shown us we need to make some decisions on something else to do beside grow corn or corn silage,” says Ted McCollum, Texas AgriLife Extension beef specialist in Amarillo.

McCollum is firmly in the “decide now” camp. “The way I look at it, [farmers] can either make that decision now, or have that decision forced on them when it happens.”

Looking down the road, McCollum speculates on what all that corn ground will do when there’s not enough water to make a corn crop. “It may be that you run cows, or it may be that the ground sits empty, growing Russian thistles,” he says.

Or it could grow forage sorghum.

forage sorghum for cattle feed
Depending on the variety, forage sorghums can produce as much total tonnage as corn on half the acres, with a lower water input. By adding corn when the forage is either put in the silage pit or taken out to feed, a cattle producer can get the same feed value as corn silage. Photo credit: Alta Seeds

McCollum, who’s been researching forage sorghums for a decade, says that’s a very viable option. And with a slight change in outlook and approach, he argues that forage sorghum silage can be made to be every bit as good as corn silage. In short, he says, it makes sense to make corn silage in the Southern Plains rather than grow it.

That’s because by using the right forage sorghum varieties, he says, you can grow as much or more forage on half the acres than corn, and do it with less water. In addition to water cost savings, seed cost is less.

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BEEF Seedstock 100
Looking for a new seedstock provider? Use our BEEF Seedstock 100 listing to find the largest bull sellers in the U.S. Browse the Seedstock 100 list here.

 

Then add whole corn kernels back to the forage, either when it’s ensiled or when you feed it. Bada bing, you’ve got homemade corn silage.

The fine print

The key, McCollum says, is the phrase “the right forage sorghum variety.” First, you must distinguish between grain sorghum and forage sorghum. Forage sorghums are taller, leafier and later-maturing than grain sorghum, or milo, and have more stalk than a sudangrass or sudan-sorghum hybrid, he says. Forage sorghums also don’t have any regrowth, making them a single-use forage.

“Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, commonly called haygrazers, are flexible multi-harvest or single-harvest systems. If I want to graze, I can graze; if I want to hay them, I can hay them; if I want to take single-cut silage, I can,” he says. “Some guys I work with take a silage crop, not the highest yield, about the middle of July. By the time fall comes around, they’ve got regrowth to wean calves on.”

For forage sorghums, there are several factors to consider. One is a brown midrib variety, or BMR. “In general, plants with brown midrib traits have lower lignin content,” McCollum says. Lignin in a plant is like rebar in concrete. It provides strength and structure, and is indigestible.

Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids offer a variety of traits, including the brown midrib trait. It gets its name from the signature brown or reddish-brown streak in the pith of the stalk. Photo credit: Alta Seeds

This is where the advice “know your variety” kicks in. McCollum’s research shows some conventional, non-BMR varieties have as much feed value as BMR varieties. And vice versa, some BMR varieties fall a little short of the conventionals.

But in general, the BMR varieties float to the top. “If I’ve got to stick my hand in a bag and pull something out, I’m going to pull out a BMR if I’m making an attempt at a higher-quality feed,” McCollum says.

Another trait to consider is photoperiod-sensitive (PS) sorghums. These varieties won’t form a seed head until the day length is less than 12 hours, 20 minutes. Then, it takes four to six weeks for the seed head to mature. For the Southern Plains, that puts them past the first freeze.

But that’s an advantage, McCollum says, because it gives PS varieties a longer harvest window without sacrificing quality. “Where you really see the quality of a forage sorghum or sorghum-sudan hybrid start to drop is once it initiates reproduction,” McCollum says. “As that head pushes up, fiber digestibility, protein value and everything else starts to drop.”

Typically, sorghum seeds don’t have quite as much energy value as corn kernels. So, if you’re growing forage sorghum for silage, you need to look at your results from a roughage standpoint and not as an energy source. That’s why McCollum recommends harvesting forage sorghum silage when the seed heads are in the milk, or soft dough, stage. You get a higher-quality forage component, and if you want to add energy, you can.

However, PS varieties are very wet, typically running about 75% moisture. If you’re going to pack it in a pit, you need to lay it down and let it wilt back to about 65% moisture, which is the recommended amount for silage.

PS varieties tend to have a lower overall nutritional value than BMR varieties. “We took all the grain out of corn and harvested it for silage, and compared it with a PS forage sorghum,” McCollum says.

Forage sorghums differ from sorghum plants designed to produce grain. Forage sorghums are taller, leafier and later-maturing than grain sorghum varieties. Forage sorghums come with a variety of traits, including photoperiodsensitive and brown midrib, shown here. As a general rule, BMR varieties have a lower lignin content, which increases digestibility. Photo credit: Alta Seeds.

“A PS forage material is essentially corn silage without any grain in it. That’s about what the nutritional value looks like.”

And that’s where a PS variety might work as a replacement for corn silage. “Maybe I need to grow PS forage sorghum to get the tonnage of fiber I need, then add corn to it to make corn silage,” McCollum says.

In addition, you can find PS varieties that also have the BMR trait. The idea in those varieties is to capture the management flexibility of the PS trait and the higher nutritional value of the BMR trait.

Water useage

Many of the variety tests McCollum conducted were under irrigation, using soil moisture use to determine how long they ran the center pivots. Looking at just the irrigation component of the water use, corn silage production was around 1 ton per acre-inch of water applied in-season at 65% moisture in the harvested material.

“If we move into the different types of forage sorghums, we’re somewhere around 1.6 to 2.2 tons of 65% moisture material per acre-inch of water that’s applied,” McCollum says.

In general, McCollum’s research found that BMR varieties tend to yield less than conventional varieties, although there are exceptions. PS varieties tend to yield more tonnage than BMR and conventional varieties. But there’s a big range, which means you need to pick your variety carefully depending on what your objectives are, he advises.

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What about the cattle? Do they consume and perform on forage sorghum silage as well as corn silage? In a finishing trial with feedyard steers comparing a BMR sorghum sudangrass hybrid to corn silage, McCollum found no difference.

In part of the trial, the hybrid silage was included in the diet at 10% dry matter, equal to the amount of corn silage in the ration. Then the hybrid silage amount was adjusted to equal the same amount of fiber contribution as corn silage. That ended up being 7.5%, with the sorghum silage on a dry-matter basis, he says. The results showed no difference in feed intake, and no statistical difference in average daily gain or feed-to-gain ratio.

McCollum admits to cherry-picking the variety based on lab data, but says feedyards in the area have been doing that for several years. “They’ll give a list [of selected forage sorghum varieties] to growers and say, ‘If you’ll grow one of these, we’ll pay you par to corn silage.’ ”

McCollum’s advice? “Pick a variety based on what your desired fiber is and your desired tonnage. I would use fiber quality as a criterion — how digestible is that fiber? And err on the early side when you harvest.”

The old adage that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting has never been truer. As agriculture competes with other water users, what farmers grow and how they grow it, and what cattle producers feed and how they feed it, will become increasingly important. In McCollum’s mind, that means forage sorghums may well play a greater role in the Southern Plains.

 

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