Improving forages can improve the overall efficacy of a herd and help increase profits

When raising cattle, the efficiency of the herd is an important component. At the end of the day, efficient cattle will help improve the bottom line.

Management strategies can aid producers in improving the efficiency of their herd. Pasture management is an excellent place to begin.

Before making any drastic changes to the pasture management plan, it helps to fully understand what efficiency in the cattle herd means.

Dr. Shane Gadberry, ruminant nutrition specialist with the University of Arkansas Extension, said in a broad definition, efficiency is the ratio of outputs to inputs.

“For cow/calf producers, we could look at the ratio of total pounds weaned and its economic value as the output(s) and grazeable acres and its costs for production as inputs,” he said.

Grazeable acres are fixed, he went on to say, but forage production per unit of land can vary by forage resources, grazing management, soil fertility and weather. Ideally, producers can improve cattle efficiency by improving their grazable acres.

Plant Complementary Forages

One pasture improvement that can be made to help increase efficiency is planting forages that are complementary to each other.

Clover and fescue are examples of forages that may have a corresponding effect – in more ways than one.

“Clovers in fescue could contribute to more total pounds of calf weaned by dilution of fescue toxin intake,” Gadberry explained. “It may also help reduce costs of production because of nitrogen fixation.”

Patrick Davis, livestock field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, also highlighted the benefits of adding legumes like clover to improve a producer’s pasture.

“Legumes are higher quality than grasses because of the lower stem-to-leaf ratio,” he said. “This results in lower neutral detergent fiber and increased protein concentrations. This combination improves forage intake, cattle performance and profit potential.”

Extend the Grazing Season

If producers can graze their cattle longer before introducing hay and supplemental feed in the winter, they can reduce their inputs. Ensuring a mix of forages are present in the pasture can help.

“Systems that have a good balance of warm-season and cool-season forages help support a longer grazing season,” Gadberry said. “This reduces the costs associated with hay production and feeding. If you can produce the same or more total pounds weaned with fewer hay feeding days, there is an improvement in the system’s efficiency.”

Understand the Trade-offs

Like many things in agriculture, pasture and herd efficiency improvements can be a give and take.

“Grazing systems often have a trade-off in animal level efficiency. This trade-off is influenced by stocking rate and forage utilization. Individual animal performance is sometimes compromised in intensive rotational grazing systems because cattle don’t have as much freedom to selectively graze,” Gadberry explained. “However, the benefit in rotational grazing is better utilization of forages. With growing cattle, we sometimes observe continuous grazing systems producing greater individual animal average daily gain but the rotational system producing more total pounds of weight gain per acre. This is because the rotational grazing system often allows us to increase the number of cattle we are grazing and (or) graze for more total days.”

Be Mindful of Herd Size

Even though a producer might be moving toward a rotational grazing system to make pasture improvements for their herd in order to achieve greater poundage per acre, it doesn’t mean they should run right out and buy more cows.

“Any producer moving from continuous to rotational grazing shouldn’t increase their herd size at the same time they implement rotational grazing. Start with the rotational grazing first,” Gadberry cautioned. “This will allow the forages and soil to recover from over-grazing or intensive patch grazing in the continuous system before extra animals are added to a rotational grazing system in an improved pasture.”


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