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Previous issues of the BEEF Cattle letter
Issue # 729
March 30, 2011
The "New Normal"- Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County, OSU Extension
For a lot of years, to many of us it might have seemed the term "pasture management" meant simply stocking as many bred cows and pairs on a pasture as the spring flush would support, and then planning to feed "cheap" hay from the time the grass ran out until the next flush came along. While there may have still been some "cheap hay" around last year, those days are likely gone. With seemingly every acre that will support a corn or soybean plant being shifted out of hay production, any quality hay that can be found to purchase will likely command a premium. To prevent every available acre from being shifted out of hay into a corn/soybean rotation, I wonder if average quality mixed hay starting at $100 per ton will become the "new normal" cost of hay.
Maybe that's not all bad. In fact, perhaps we've reached a point in time where maximizing numbers of cows and calves should not be the management objective. In a place and time where quality beef is commanding a premium, and grass and forage utilization must be optimized, maybe lesser cow numbers grazed for more of the year will become the "new normal" feed management plan.
If graze able forage becomes abundant due to more intense management or lesser cow numbers, perhaps the most profitable use of the extra forage is grazing an extra 100 to 300 pounds onto the calves after weaning and before marketing them. Imagine a system where calves were fence line weaned onto stockpiled late summer or fall pastures in the field beside momma. Today, heavier calves ready for the feedlot are commanding a premium compared to what we've experienced in the past. Light weight bawling babies simply require too much feed for them to bring the premiums they used too, not to mention health related issues. Perhaps feeding calves to heavier weight on grass will become the "new normal" for the intense pasture manager.
Have cattle and calf prices found "new normals" we can enjoy for years to come as cattle numbers are at lows not experienced in more than 50 years? Yes, probably! However, history tells us that expenses will eventually seek "new normals" too, likely returning profit margins to numbers similar to those experienced previously. Until expenses catch up with the prices we presently enjoy, it certainly behooves cattlemen to explore a "new normal" for controlling expenses.
Despite taking a close look at finding ways to extend grazing efforts, could it be that the hay we do feed will be found stored under cover, chopped, and then fed in bunks as the "new normal" during times of the year when sufficient pasture is not available?
The point is, it certainly appears we are traveling in uncharted territory. We are all enjoying historically high prices for cattle, calves and culls. At the same time, it's also perhaps the best time to explore management techniques which will help retain and preserve some of the profit margin we are enjoying now.
During his presentation Best Management Practices, and Adjusting Management to Match Markets and Economic Conditions in the 4th week of this winter's Ohio Beef Cattle School, Francis Fluharty offered this summary as his " Keys to Success" or, perhaps his view the "new normals" he's expecting.
* In the future, benchmarking performance will be a key to maintaining profitability in the beef industry.
* Herd Health and Nutritional Programs Must be Tailored for specific marketing strategies.
* Animal Welfare will make Minimizing Stress to the Calf even more important than it is now.
* Use Management Strategies, and Products, that Enhance Health, Minimize Digestive Disorders, and Improve Feed Efficiency History
If you missed that session of the Ohio Beef School, or would like to review it, follow this web link: http://go.osu.edu/feb24. As you watch and listen, consider what the "new normal" might become for yourself.
Fertilizing Pastures in the Spring- Jeff McCutcheon, Extension Educator, Morrow County
Every spring I get questions from producers about fertilizing their pastures with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Many producers coming out of winter want to give their pastures a boost or they are fertilizing crop fields and figure they might as well do their pasture while they are thinking about it. Eventually I lead the conversation to the question, "is this really the best time to fertilize pasture?"
Now, I am not totally opposed to fertilizing pastures in the spring. Applications of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) should be made prior to establishing a new seeding based on soil test results. A light application of nitrogen (N), 20-40 lbs. N/ac. in March could be used to jump start spring growth and allow for earlier grazing. This could potentially give about two weeks of earlier grazing if environmental conditions are favorable. But the acreage covered by this N application should be limited. The spring flush is coming and most producers can't normally harvest it all with grazing animals. Why add to the amount of forage produced when you don't need it? An early nitrogen application also can increase the potential for grass tetany and excess nitrogen in the spring may possibly increase toxins in endophyte-infected tall fescue. Generally, one acre of pasture for every two cows should be fertilized with N in early spring and never more than a third of the total pasture acreage.
All applications of K should wait until the plants can utilize it better. If we were to look at soil levels of potassium during the year we would find that it is in greater concentration during the spring (due to mineralization of K during the winter. Plants have the ability to take up more potassium than they need. This is called luxury consumption. Luxury consumption can occur when there are high soil levels of potassium, like what we see in spring. High concentrations of potassium can affect magnesium uptake by plants. This not only affects the plant physiology but can also cause metabolic imbalances in animals that consume mainly forages. The metabolic imbalance in animals is usually referred to as grass tetany. Why apply potassium at a time when more is already available and plants can take up more than they need?
So when is the best time to apply fertilizer to pastures? Research shows that if one application of P and K is being done, then fall is the best time for the application. By applying P and K in September or October plants develop a healthier root system and improve winter survival. This results in plants better able to withstand drought the following year. If high rates of phosphorus and potassium are recommended by soil test, then there is an advantage to splitting the application. Some of the recommended fertilizer should be applied after the first hay harvest in early summer, with the balance being applied in the fall. This will help reduce the luxury consumption of potassium by the plants and improve the efficiency of K use.
Fertilizing pasture in the spring is not the best use of your time or fertilizer dollar.
To fertilize or not to fertilize? - Stan Smith, Fairfield County, OSU Extension PA
Locally this winter as we've discussed the increasing costs of feed, fertilizer, land rent, machinery and anything else a farmer might be purchasing these days, one of the "cost saving" measures I've heard suggested is skipping the fertilizer this year on hay and pasture land. Are they skipping fertilizer on their corn ground this year too? No! In fact, one of the "reasons" heard for cutting back the fertility on forages is in order to commit those resources to corn and bean production.
If a recent soil test suggests you need fertilizer or lime on hay and pasture land, then don't think for a minute it's anything but voodoo economics if you instead commit it to only row crop fields. This is especially the case with hay fields. After all, an "average" Ohio annual hay yield of 3 tons per acre removes the same amount of potash from the soil as a SIX HUNDRED (yes, that's 600) bushel corn crop!
At a minimum, if fertilizer prices dictate that you simply can't fertilize all the hay and pasture land that a soil test indicates need be, take the resources available and use them strategically where they are most needed. Practicing efficient pasture grazing management over the years distributes and recycles manure nutrients very nicely. Your soil test may indicate that applying P & K is likely your lowest fertilizer priority on pasture land.
If limited resources dictate you only apply nitrogen fertilizer one time during the year, as Jeff McCutcheon suggests above, do it after the first growth flush is over in late May or June, or wait until August when you begin to stockpile. However at the same time, remember that research suggests that each of the first 40 pounds of nitrogen applied to a grass field returns up to an additional 54 pounds of dry matter. When high quality forages are valued at 5 cents per pound, that indicates the breakeven price you could pay for up to 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre is $2.70 a pound! Or, looking at it another other way, an investment of 40 pounds of nitrogen at 60 cents per pound (total cost per acre= $24.00) strategically timed on a grass hay field will return more than a ton of extra forage.
Fertilizing hay ground must be the highest priority, especially replacing P & K. Each ton of hay which is removed from a hay field takes with it 14 pounds of P2O5 and 50-55 pounds of K20. Replacing the nutrients removed by hay harvest must remain the highest priority to maintain long term stand health and productivity of perennial hay fields.
Why Do We Make Hay? - reprinted from the 1998 "Forage Systems Update," Forage Systems Research Center, Linneus, MO, Jim Gerrish, Editor
Do you ever stop and think why exactly do we make hay? That is, what is the primary objective for making hay? The most common response would be: to provide winter feed. That certainly is a high priority, but what happens when we let that be our main objective?
Generally, we start the season by identifying where we are going to make hay, based on the expectation of harvesting X number of bales so that we can feed hay for X number of days. We tend to delay harvest until we have favorable weather which results in lower quality hay as cool-season grasses mature. Frequently, harvest comes so late that the regrowth following hay harvest is poor, offering limited opportunities for fall grazing. The net outcome is that the grazing season is shortened and we are left facing a long hay feeding season with marginal quality hay.
I would suggest another approach to hay making starting from a fundamentally different point of view. Rather than having generating X number of bales as the basic reason for making hay, consider hay making as a tool to manage pasture quality and supply. With this approach, we will generally start making hay earlier in the season, accepting greater risk of unfavorable weather but most likely producing higher quality hay, though lower yield. Regrowth is likely to be significantly greater than following later hay harvests due to more favorable soil moisture and temperature levels. Because of better regrowth on hayed pastures, the main body of pasture will not need to be grazed as severely, allowing for a rest period going into the fall season and allowing more pasture to be stockpiled, thus shortening the hay feeding season.
Plant maturity is generally considered to have the greatest effect on pasture and hay quality. Digestibility typically decreases at a rate of about 1/2 percent per day following boot state in cool season grasses. Based on this rate of decline, delaying harvest for three weeks after boot to wait for more favorable weather would result in a digestibility loss of ten percent. To put this in context, if digestibility is sixty percent at boot and declines to fifty percent three weeks later, the hay has gone from being adequate for a lactating beef cow to being inadequate for even maintenance of a cow.
Several researchers have reported the quality loss due to increased grass maturity to be significantly greater than loss incurred if the hay had been harvested at boot stage and rained on. While this trend is certainly true for grass and grass-dominant hay, alfalfa and other legumes are much more susceptible to serious weather damage. However, if we are considering hay harvest from pastures, in all likelihood it will be a grass-dominant sward.
If we are harvesting hay from paddocks in a rotational grazing system, there are again two different approaches to determine where hay is harvested. One approach is to designate certain paddocks at the beginning of the season to be harvested for winter feed. An advantage of this approach is that paddocks may be selected on the basis of ease of harvest or managing a particular weed problem. An alternative approach is to graze all the pastures initially and then identify the paddocks where grazing management has been least effective and use hay harvest as a tool to clean up grazing management mistakes. This approach certainly makes the farm look more attractive for a summer field day!
So before you fire up the equipment this spring or even before you turn the stock out, think about why you are making hay and what you would really like to accomplish with haying in the context of your total forage-livestock system. Good pasture management extends the grazing season and reduces the need for hay. Poor hay crop management shortens the grazing season and increases the need for hay.
Grazing Bites, March 2011 - Victor Shelton, NRCS Grazing Specialist
Even though it might not feel like it yet in some places and certainly most mornings, spring will soon certainly be upon us. Are we ready? Is the pasture ready? I know the livestock are ready and probably have been dreaming of green pastures and warmer weather a lot lately.
We enter this spring in slightly different circumstances than most years after the majority of the past summer and fall being extremely droughty and little or no forage growth during that time period. This sets us up . . . well rather the livestock up, for potentially slightly different forage availability and growth rates, and some changes in nutritional balances.
Let's first take a look at these pastures. I think a lot of the pastures and hay fields actually look a lot worse than they really are. Most of the tall cool-season forages like orchardgrass and tall fescue went dormant fairly early in that drought period and if not totally overgrazed, a good percentage should come back, especially the fescue. Forages that are not near as drought tolerant such as bluegrass or perennial ryegrass were hit the hardest and may have died out. Droughty soils such as sand and strip-mined ground will also show more damage due to poor water holding capacity. Thin stands will of course result in poorer yields.
Dig down into the roots if possible and look at the roots. Are they alive and healthy? The more live root mass, the better the early growth will be and a good indicator that the plant went dormant before being eaten too close or that you did a good job in maintaining some residual. If there is very much bare soil or you lack sufficient quality live forage plants, then we need to consider either adding to the present stand or starting over. Reseeding may be needed to increase desired forage species, increase nutritional value, provide a denser, stand and reduce weeds.
If the grass stand is sufficient and only lacks adequate legumes, then this is probably the easiest scenario to fix. I would strongly recommend frost-seeding additional or needed legumes as soon as possible so the seed can work its way down through the cover and get to the soil where freezing and thawing conditions will help it find its ideal growing location. All legumes should be inoculated with the appropriate inoculants for that species to insure proper and good germination, growth and nitrogen fixation. If you truly want to change or improve the forages of the pasture, then starting over and killing out the existing stand is probably the best thing to do. On the conservative side, if the stand is really only a little thin and you and the livestock are satisfied with the existing forages, then I would probably rely a little more on the existing seed bank and do any needed creative grazing required to return the stand to its prior level of performance and condition. Allowing longer rests between grazing periods and allowing more desirable forages to mature and graze in a more mature condition will help revive the stand and density.
Now, with less residual or "brown growth" left from last year, we will find the livestock and especially cattle needing more roughage or fiber this spring on most pasture. Usually we have a fair amount of residual "dry" material left to help balance out the carbon nitrogen ratio of the rumen. Typically at first turnout, the cows will graze for two to three days and then start hitting every fence row and dry matter source they can find to try and maintain that mat on their rumen. If they can't, the fermentation vat does not work properly, the system works too fast, nutrients are not absorbed fast enough and beware standing too close behind old Bessie. Given the opportunity, they will balance themselves, but it has to be available first. Consider providing some hay or even straw in the grazing paddock - they will eat it if they need it.
All pastures are going to require more rest this spring. That is not going to be the easiest thing to do in many cases, especially as the hay supply dwindles. Growth will get better with time, but will in lots of cases start out slower than normal because of the reduced residual and particularly less roots. If you have to graze earlier than you really should, keep the animals moving giving the forages a fighting chance to recover. The more rest they can get, the better they will be later in the year…and better survival and growth if we find ourselves in droughty conditions again.
Moist, "live" soils with an ample supply of organic matter will produce more forage and potentially higher quality forage. It is important to try and maintain and or increase the amount of cover on the soil slowing evaporation and carbon oxidation; thus more drought tolerance…or perhaps just normal Indiana summer weather…but it starts now. W.A. Albrecht was a leader in promoting the idea that improving the soil by increasing organic matter and fertility improved the nutritional value and yield of forages. Today we know that soil health is the first place to start when looking to sustain and improve plant and animal well being. Keep the soil covered, keep it cool, and provide sufficient rest to the plants growing on it. Kit Pharo says, "Agriculture that is not profitable and enjoyable will never be sustainable".
Keep on grazing.
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BEEF Cattle is a weekly publication of Ohio State University Extension in Fairfield County and the OSU Beef Team. Contributors include members of the Beef Team and other beef cattle specialists and economists from across the U.S.
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