Double-stocking fescue is “low-hanging fruit”

By Eric Bailey

The author is an extension beef nutrition specialist with the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Missouri produced 1.91 million calves in 2020, yet the University of Missouri estimates that only 500,000 calves are kept in the state after weaning.

Tall fescue is the primary pasture forage for much of the state. It is a highly productive grass, producing from 2 to 5 tons of forage per acre, depending on soil type and fertilization regime.

Because tall fescue is a cool-season grass, there are both spring and fall growth periods (see Figure 1). Often, farmers running cow-calf operations on tall fescue pasture systems remark that they have more grass than needed during the spring growth period. The excess growth produced in the spring is often harvested as a stored forage (hay or baleage) and fed back to the cattle during the winter.

This system of forage management has real limitations and weaknesses. The equipment required to make stored forage is a barrier to entry for new producers. Quality and quantity are antagonistic in a stored forage system. Most producers seek to maximize tonnage, yet “late-cut” hay is often insufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of late-pregnancy or lactating cows. The forage utilization rate, or the pounds of feed consumed by a cow relative to the pounds of feed produced per acre, of a forage system that requires swathing, raking, baling, storing, and then feeding is much less than perceived.

Bring in stockers

An idea that my research lab has pursued in the last few years is the idea of utilizing stocker cattle to graze the spring flush in tall fescue pastures. We got our inspiration from the Flint Hills of Kansas and the “double stock” or “intensive early stocking” system. The Flint Hills has long been an area where stocker cattle graze high-quality warm-season tallgrass prairie forage. About 50 years ago, researchers from Kansas State began to evaluate stocker cattle systems, which until then had been 4 acres per steer for 180 days of grazing (May to October).

Based on serial weight measurements, the researchers noted that two-thirds of individual animal weight gain occurred in the first half (May to July) of the grazing season. This observation led to a “double stock” system where the stocking rate was boosted to 2 acres per head for 90 days, rather than 4 acres per head for 180 days.

The Kansas State researchers compared traditional and “double stocking” systems for 10 years. They reported 300 pounds per head weight gain in the traditional, 180-day stocker systems and 200 pounds per head weight gain in the “double stocking” systems. Yet, on a pound of gain per acre basis, “double stocking” systems gained 100 pounds of live weight per acre while the 180-day system only gained 75 pounds.

Tall fescue forage systems have historically not been held in high regard for stocker cattle. Fescue toxicosis is a syndrome found in beef cattle grazing fescue pastures with significant endophyte infection rates. The rule of thumb is a 0.1-pound reduction in daily gain for every 10% bump in endophyte infection. This is a real challenge because the endophyte, which is a fungus living in symbiosis with tall fescue, confers drought tolerance and insect resistance that greatly aids fescue in being a hardy and prolific plant.

It is not difficult to find research or extension publications showing poor (0.75 to 1 pound per day) gains from stocker cattle grazing endophyte-infected tall fescue pastures. But the issue is the grazing system.

We have long spoken about the “summer slump” in tall fescue pastures. Fescue goes reproductive in the late spring, with stems and seedheads emerging during this phase, followed by a period of near dormancy. Forage quality declines and the toxic compounds causing fescue toxicosis rise during this period. Most tall fescue stocker cattle work has kept cattle grazing during the summer slump.

A better way

What if we “double stocked” fescue pastures in the spring, similar to the Flint Hills, and removed cattle before the worst of the summer slump occured?

For the past three years, my lab group has integrated the “double stocking” concept into tall fescue (88% endophyte infection rate) pastures at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon. Each year, 96 steers were distributed randomly across 16 pastures (4 acres per pasture). Our original intent was not to pursue double stocking. The goal of our research was actually to investigate the interaction between an herbicide that suppresses tall fescue seedheads and nitrogen fertilization.

We custom-grazed stocker cattle for a local operation and did not want to deal with the summer slump, so we raised the stocking rate up to 1.5 steers per acre and only grazed from April 15 to June 15 each year. We could have turned the cattle out 21 to 30 days earlier, but the timing of herbicide application must be when tall fescue is in the boot stage for maximum seedhead suppression. It is important to note that pastures were continuously grazed throughout the experiment. Also, cattle were not provided supplemental feed at any point during the experiment. Many producers have opted to dilute out tall fescue in grazing cattle diets by providing supplemental feed, typically around 1% of body weight per day.

One of the treatments in the experiment received no nitrogen and no herbicide. Over 56 days, cattle gained 87 pounds (1.55 pounds average daily gain, or ADG). While 87 pounds per head gain does not seem impressive in the context of stocker systems, our gain per acre was 130.5 pounds. We exceeded the gain per acre of the Flint Hills system by 30% in two-thirds the time.

Most forage systems stock at acres per head. Tall fescue stocker systems, especially those that use the “double stock” concept, will stock at head per acre. Imagine the possibility when managed grazing is implemented on top of this system.

On-farm results

A producer I work with implemented the “double stock” system in a custom grazing operation north of Columbia this spring. They grazed 232 steers on 170 acres of tall fescue that has not been fertilized in at least four years. Steers were turned out March 30 and shipped on June 16. Steers gained 145 pounds in 81 days (1.79 pounds ADG; 198 pounds gain per acre). This producer negotiated a 40-cent cost-of-gain agreement with the cattle owner, who also paid for the mineral. Including trucking, the cattle owner paid 52 cents per pound of gain while the custom grazer paid for their annual lease, plus additional revenue.

The beauty of the system is that fall grazing is still available. Also, there is no doctoring pinkeye and foot rot during the height of the summer slump.

We sorely need innovative business models to bring the next generation of cattle producers back to the farm. Custom grazing stocker cattle on leased land is “low-hanging fruit,” in my opinion. Tall fescue pastures can work well for stocker cattle systems so long as the summer slump is avoided. A “double stocking” system that has cattle graze the spring flush, rather than stockpiling it for winter feeding, may be a way to improve forage utilization and profitability of beef cattle production in the Fescue Belt.

This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 32 and 33.

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