Gain grazing flexibility

By Eric Bailey

Drought is on farmers’ minds across Missouri and other states. Monthly precipitation has been below average 17 of the last 22 months in Columbia, Mo. I am concerned that grass growth this spring will be below average because precipitation is the number one predictor of forage production in grassland systems.

An evaluation of precipitation data revealed Columbia has received less than 80% of its average annual precipitation once every 4.3 years. Drought is more frequent than many are willing to admit, and we should account for that in our business models. This month, I will share ideas on how to adapt a forage-based beef cattle operation for enhanced drought resilience.

A beef cow requires feed every day of the year, but forage does not grow continuously. Consequently, we stockpile forages during periods of excess growth and utilize the surplus during periods of limited growth. However, few recognize the missing piece in this puzzle: The proportion of the farm stocked with beef cows significantly influences the ability to stockpile forages for lean times.

Utilizing 100% of forage acres for cows necessitates feeding hay during periods of reduced forage growth. Conversely, stocking 50% of the acres with cows and allocating the other 50% for an alternative enterprise opens the potential for more acres per cow during winter and drought.

For a Missouri-specific example, a 320-acre farm supports 100 cows and feeds hay for 90 to 120 days in the winter. Currently, forage growth in the spring exceeds cows’ needs during those months and most farms cut it for hay to feed during the winter. Reducing cows from 100 to 50 head opens acreage to be used for an additional enterprise. I propose reducing the herd to 50 cows and adding 200 head of stocker or backgrounder calves. The 50 cows would be on the farm year-round, and the stockers would be on the farm from April 1 to July 1 each year.

Stocker cattle enterprises offer flexibility that beef cow enterprises lack. We use livestock to harvest vegetative forage rather than waiting for it to mature and lose quality. Stockers do not depreciate during drought as they can be shipped to a feedlot, and stocking rate decisions can be made in advance based on forage conditions. For nine months out of the year, you are now running 50 cows on 320 acres. I speculate that you will not have to feed much hay to cows in this system.

Perhaps bringing new cattle onto your farm is unpalatable. There are risks of biosecurity, a greater need for improved cattle handling facilities, better stockmanship, and the ability to identify and treat sick cattle. Luckily, there is a flexible grazing unit already on your farm. Let’s take a closer look at using home-raised heifer calves in this way.

Keep the heifers

In a commercial beef cattle operation, every male calf is destined for a grocery store case, and its value determined by market conditions. A heifer, on the other hand, can become a brood cow, and her value is not set in stone. Many producers select replacement heifers at weaning based on phenotype. The nonreplacement heifers are sold at a discount relative to steers. But does the beef industry do a good job of selecting replacement females?

A dataset from the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska reported less than 50% of bred heifers produce four calves before culling. Economists estimate a beef cow must have five to six calves to pay for herself. In other words, most replacement heifers will lose money during their lifetime.

A heifer calf undergoes an “appreciation-depreciation” cycle. We can make a heifer more valuable by growing her or breeding her. When a heifer fails to conceive, she depreciates significantly. The worst-case scenario is paying $2,500 for a bred heifer, culling her after she raises one calf, and selling her for $1,250. Depreciation is a silent killer of profit in the beef business.

I propose that you keep all replacement heifers, background them on pasture, and expose them to a bull for a short breeding season or administer one round of timed A.I. Best-case scenario, you will have more bred heifers than you need, and the extra bred heifers can be sold at an auction.

Given where we are in the cattle cycle, it is likely that bred females will command a premium in the next few years. So, you force appreciation on a 1,000-pound heifer. If sold as a feeder calf, she is likely worth up to $1,900 today, depending on weight at sale. As a bred heifer, she gains $600 in value.

The drought resilience comes in when you make your heifer development program forage based. We recommend heifers reach 65% of mature body weight by breeding, yet there is ample data showing acceptable conception rates when heifers are grown to 50% to 55% of mature body weight. In essence, you are selecting heifers that breed in an environment similar to mature cows. This system may require supplementation for heifers, but it will be less than 1% of body weight per day. Heifers will still graze for much of their feed.

Adjust as needed

If you lack feed resources at weaning, select replacement heifers and sell the rest, effectively reducing the stocking rate. If feed is abundant, keep all heifers for development. You also have the choice to breed all the developed heifers or to perform another cut at any time before breeding. This provides multiple opportunities to partially destock pastures, but unlike the traditional model, heifers can go into the feeder cattle market and not be depreciated the way cows are when everyone is trying to sell them during drought. Like the stocker cattle scenario, this will require a downsizing of the cow herd to accommodate the heifer development enterprise.

Maintaining fewer cows than your land can support helps avoid two profit killers in the beef cow business. During drought, the price of beef cows drops, pitting farmers in a losing scenario of selling low and buying high. Additionally, the price of feed (hay and grain) often spikes when drought conditions are widespread. Thus, farmers are faced with a lose-lose scenario of selling cows for less than they are worth or buying expensive feed to maintain cows during these lean times. Be creative with your grazing platform and diversify your allocation of forage resources.

This article appeared in the March 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 10-11.

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