Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Kentucky
In a recent poll of county Extension agents in the state as well as informally asking producers at various meetings, this year's hay prices for grass hay seem to be in the $50-$70/ton range or $25-$35 per 1,000 lb round bale. I was able to find a report from USDA for hay marketings for Kentucky from 2006 in which non-legume hay sold for $70/ton. It is interesting how often I hear the disgust in folks' voice about how input costs such as potash, nitrogen, and equipment have gone up, yet hay prices remain the same as they were five years ago. Think about it.
No one would deny with record setting rainfall in 2011 that it was a good grass growing year. There was actually grass this fall to graze for a change. In many of the forage and livestock programs, educators promote extending the grazing season as it is less costly than feeding stored forages such as hay. For instance, if we value hay at $60/ton with an average hay intake of 35 lbs/day for a beef cow, the forage cost per day would be roughly $1.05 ($60/2,000 lb * 35 lb). Tack on an extra $0.10 a day for mineral and one is looking at a cost of about $1.15 per day to feed a cow through the winter. My challenge to each of you is to determine how much it costs you to graze a cow a day during the grazing season and determine if grazing is less expensive than feeding stored feeds.
The norm for grazing management on many of our beef cattle operation is an extensive, low input, and hands-off approach. As soon as the grass starts to green up and the cows start to pick at grass, a sigh of relief is expressed by many of us and a sense of joy overcomes a person. Some may even do a fist pump while screaming "Yes, no more hay feeding!"
Several research studies have investigated grazing behavior of beef animals and dairy cows. In a handful of studies, the time spent grazing was approximately 450-625 minutes or 7.5-10.5 hours per day. I think this comes to a surprise to many of us that manage beef cattle. We have the expectation that since the cattle are on grass all day, they would spend much more time grazing. Realize there is resting time and cattle spend nearly the same amount of time ruminating or chewing their cud as they do grazing. How quickly time flies for a grazing animal!
How we manage the grass presented to cattle can impact the efficiency of the time they spend grazing. The average number of bites per minute from seven research trials from 2004 to 2011 was approximately 63. What does this mean? If a beef cow grazes for 8 hours, then they actually take just over 30,000 bites a day (8 hr * 60 min/hr * 63 bites/min). Ideally, we would allow an animal to consume as much per bite as possible to maximize intake. As pasture height is decreased, the number of bites per minute increases to compensate for the lower intake per bite. Think of this as speeding up the tractor and hay mower on shorter hay fields and slowing it down on thicker stands. Ultimately, the shorter hay field will yield less hay even though you are going across it faster.
Managed intensive grazing (MIG) is simply what the name states. It is often referred to more commonly as rotational grazing. The focus is a balance between forage production and animal performance. A wide variation exists in these systems from 4 paddock systems to several paddocks. The objective is to minimize the grazing of regrowth of the plant while keeping plants vegetative and provide a rest period that allows root reserves to be replenished. Generally, the result is in an improvement in forage production, botanical composition and in some instances animal performance. In several cases the carrying capacity, which is the pounds of animal that can be effectively managed over the entire grazing season or a given length of time, is also increased with managed grazing.
Stocking density is a term that we must understand before we talk about UHDG. Stocking density relates to the number of animals or more often the total pounds on a given amount of land at any point in time. This is different than stocking rate which is the number of animals or pounds per unit of land for a set period of time. These terms can be easily confused. But it is important to understand because with Ultra High Density Grazing (UHDG) or tall grass grazing or mob grazing, whichever term you care to use, the stocking densities reported range from 200,000 lbs per acre to over one million pounds per acre.
Now, a producer with a 100 acre farm would initially look at a stocking density of 500,000 lbs/acre and think that they would need 100 acres * 500,000 lbs/acre / 500 lb steer = 100,000 steers. They quickly dismiss this as a joke and move on as they know there is absolutely no way the farm could come close to supporting this number of cattle. But they were considering carrying capacity, not stocking density which is what the folks discussing UHDG talk about. Alternatively, if we had 50 steers that weighed 500 lbs and the cattle were moved every 12 hours, the paddock size might be only a tenth of an acre which would allow for a stocking density of 50 hd * 500 lb/hd / 0.10 acre = 250,000 lb / acre.
Is this even possible? You need to consider that producers with really high stocking densities are moving the cattle 8-10 times a day. Additionally, the recognition of the impact of limited forage availability and animal performance is recognized and stocking density will impact animal performance under limited forage availability. Additionally, an area may only be grazed 2-3 times a year compared to 5-6 in MIG systems. This allows significant rest for the forages and development of an extensive root system.
Currently, there is limited science-based research investigating UHDG. This makes it difficult for one to make a solid recommendation. Variances in soil types, precipitation received, forage base and species grazed are expected to all have impacts on the outcomes. Many areas that have seen positive responses have been in regions with limited rainfall or less rainfall than what our region receives. As more information and experiences are brought forward, we'll evaluate the outcomes and relay them.
With increasing grain costs, a focus on forage production and grazing management will be a cost effective management decision. Visit with a forage and/or grazing specialist to prioritize what items need to be addressed and will result in the best return on your investment from both short- and long-term perspectives.
OMG that's it! I hope you had a great holiday season. Now spend some time this winter evaluating your forage production options to reduce your input costs for your beef operation.
Source: OSU Extension