Forage Production and Utilization is the Key to Profitable Beef Production

M. H. Poore

Recently times have been pretty tough in the cattle business with low cattle prices and record high grain prices. As many cattlemen have realized, when corn and soybean meal go sky high, so go "cheap" alternative feeds like soybean hulls, cottonseed, etc.. The alternatives are still "cheap" relative to corn and soybean meal, but unfortunately you will still lose money if you feed much of anything that is available on the currently highly competitive commodity market.

As I look at it, the only feeds that have not gone up (much) are forages and waste products like broiler litter. You might argue that fertilizer prices have gone up, so the forages have gone up too. Considering that fertilizer is not up any where near as much as grain, and that it is only a fraction of the total production cost, the cost of forages really has not gone up much. Actually, many cattlemen use alternative fertilizer sources (animal waste) and so their costs have not increased.

I expect that high grain prices are going to be the norm rather than the exception in coming years as the world's population continues to explode. If we are to survive, we need to put our attention toward using products that are not competitive with swine, poultry, or people by which I mean forages and waste products. We can only make it in the long run if we use a cow to do what she is supposed to do; utilize forages that grow on land not suitable for grain or other crop production.

Producers that are interested in being in business for a long time in the future (and thriving) need to be getting around to learning all they can about getting more and better feed out of their forage program. Production could easily be doubled on many farms in the state simply by paying attention to growing more forage, improving the quality of both grazed and harvested forages, and putting cattle and feed together in the most efficient way.

But, its really not all that simple, is it? In actuality, anyone who has ever intensively managed cows knows that it doesn't just happen. What we are talking about is certainly not a system you can turn your back on and let take care of its self. It involves developing the skills and intuition necessary to make a wide variety of management decisions, nearly on a daily basis, and then taking the time to do what needs to be done.

While it is a daily job to keep a management intensive forage system functioning, it really doesn't take much time each day. It is also not something I consider a chore. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences a cattleman can have to truly take control of the behavior and nutrition of the herd, and to do it in peace and quite without the stress you might expect with frequent cattle movement. When cattle are moved often, and frequently talked to and walked through, they tame down and become a pleasure, rather than an aggravation to work.

In order to develop the skills to manage and improve forage programs in the state we have planned several Forage Production and Utilization Schools ("Grazing Schools") for beef producers, and we expect to continue these in future years. The goal of the schools is to establish the following skills in the participants:

  1. How to produce forage crops including maintaining soil fertility, selecting proper species and varieties, and finding the proper balance between grazing and mechanical harvesting.

  2. How to properly design pasture system components including fencing, water, and heavy-use areas.

  3. How to estimate the amount and quality of forage in a pasture and how much to offer to animals on a daily basis.

  4. How to allocate forages available on the farm to your various production groups to optimize animal performance and production costs.

  5. How to vary the basics of forage management for specific forage crops including fescue, bermudagrass, orchardgrass, clover, alfalfa and others.

The two-day schools will be held on July 17-18 and November 21-22. The July school will be held at the Center For Environmental Farming Systems (Cherry Farm) at Goldsboro. The training will emphasize utilizing swine waste and other waste products on warm season forages. We are currently developing a model beef operation at this location and participants will be able to see a system that has been recently designed and implemented. If you are trying to figure out how to put together a system that works "down east", this is the school for you.

The November school will be conducted at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory at Raleigh and will emphasize the production and management of stockpiled fescue. Several groups of animals will be grazing on the fescue pastures at this time as we initiate using the stockpile. If you use stockpiled fescue, you could benefit greatly next winter by attending this school.

The schools are being offered as a cooperative project between the Departments of Crop and Animal Science at NCSU, the North Carolina Forage and Grassland Council, and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. We hope that these two schools will be the first of many intensive training sessions aimed at having an immediate impact on the forage skills of the beef producers participating. There will be a $50 registration fee to cover materials, lunches and breaks, and the enrollment will be limited to 30 for each of these schools. For more information contact Ms. Marie Smith (919-515-5821) in the NCSU Forage Extension Office.

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Last modified March 1998
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