The most efficient way to feed beef cows is to let them use pastures, but that takes intentional management.
“Feed is one of the most expensive variables that we have within our operations, and if we can do any type of grazing, typically we can defer a lot of those costs and not have that as part of the operation we have to incur. So if we can manage our feed cost, knowing that the less cost we have to incur either through substitute feeding or supplement feeding, is going to help our bottom line,” says Hugh Aljoe, Producer Relations, Noble Research Institute.
Planning for available forage is a matter of supply and demand based on what the pasture produces and what the cattle need.
“The carrying capacity is really a measure of the forge supply. How much grass is being produced? Stocking rate is a measure of forge demand. How much is going to be grazed? This carrying capacity changes from year to year or season to season based on moisture, and sometimes our management, especially our pasture management. The better we manage, the more opportunity we have for production should we have favorable conditions,” Aljoe says.
Paying no attention to grass and conditions can cause pasture damage that takes years to recover. But consistent monitoring and recordkeeping allows for regular improvement.
“One example in particular, we had a producer come in and bought a degraded resource, and through management planning over a period of time took it from poor condition to what we would consider excellent condition in five years. And using photo points he actually captured those pictures so we can use it for demonstrations and help other producers see what the future looks like, or could look like for them,” Aljoe explains.
Cow body condition scores gives clues to forage quality and proper stocking rates.
“Typically at calving and at weaning are the two critical areas that we can gauge from. If our cows are in adequate condition, we're probably stalked about where we need to be relative to the growing season we just had. So we want to make sure the cows are about body condition score 5.5, knowing that they're going to fluctuate a little bit, but by the time we get into weaning they shouldn't be much below 5.5 if we had a good year,” he says.
Managed grazing lets cows harvest only enough in a given pasture and time for complete recovery before the next grazing. Introduced grasses come back much faster than native.
“Ideally, as we begin to look at the different pastures, some pastures we can graze a little more aggressively than others. Our introduced pastures. In the South, our Bermuda grass or fescue in the North. Those we can take as much as 50 to 65% of the production every time we graze, because they'll recover rapidly. On the other hand, on native ranged top pastures, we only want to take 25% at best, because we need that natural evolution,” Aljoe says.
A powerhouse cow can’t grow a calf of the same caliber without the grass to match.
“The main thing we want to be able to do is help producers focus around the things that are important. And for us, that's land stewardship and grazing animal production for producer profitability,” he says.