Virginia beef producer grazes 20 days shy of year-round
Early summer stockpiling is helping Robert Shoemaker, Delaplane, VA, nearly attain his goal of rotationally grazing a 350-head herd of Angus-based crossbreeds 365 days a year on 950 acres.
“We think a summer stockpile is absolutely critical to getting us through the winter season,” says Shoemaker, who was named the American Forage and Grassland Council's Forage Spokesperson of the Year at its annual June meeting. Spring and summer are when his pastures produce the most, and fall stockpiling doesn't give his cattle enough winter feed.
“Winter feed costs are the No. 1 costs, and if we can reduce those costs, we can remain profitable,” Shoemaker says. For most of the 14 years he's rotationally grazed, he's fed hay no more than 20 days each winter, usually when he's contending with 12-15” snowfalls.
“The bottom line is that we can get a 35% return on our investment in this type of system (not counting his own labor and management). When cattle prices are down we can still make money.”
Shoemaker grazes calves to 550 to 600-lb selling weights and backgrounds replacement heifers on fescue-based pasture with clovers that come up naturally in his area. “We're getting dry-matter pasture yields of about 5 tons per acre per year.”
The first rule to a successful year-round grazing system? “Let all the cattle do all the work,” he says. “Let them harvest everything.”
He starts grazing cattle on green grass as early and as fast as he can — March 1 if possible. “This is what keeps the spring grass young and vegetative longer. Around June we have then created a summer stockpile that gives us extra feed in case we get a drought. It also keeps cover on the ground to help conserve soil moisture.”
At times Shoemaker fertilizes in late summer to maximize the stockpile. “Over time, pastures become more resilient and, after proper fertility is reached, we fertilize less, or not at all.”
One thing he doesn't do is clip pastures. “Clipping may reduce total dry matter. Sometimes we may Bush Hog, but we Bush Hog high to maintain the residue. Clippings are about a ton to the acre, where if we don't clip, we have about two tons of forage. It may not be as high of quality, but it's definitely good enough for beef cattle,” Shoemaker points out.
Stockpiled forages, because of the cool conditions in his area, are a lot higher quality than they're given credit for, he believes. “The other thing that happens is, during those cool seasons, we get pretty good dry matter intakes.”
Nutrient-wise, Shoemaker feeds a high-copper mineral, but gets enough phosphorus from his forages, which he tests regularly.
He saves on haying equipment, labor and storage costs, but has invested in high-quality fencing and water systems.
Shoemaker started farming in 1995, after quitting an agribusiness career in grain marketing and farm supply sales.
“That was a wonderful experience, but what I found was that a lot of agriculture was capital-intensive. It was easy to drive down the road and find folks with millions of dollars in debt.
“What I wanted to do was to develop a year-round rotational grazing system with no haying equipment and low capital costs. We wanted to put the capital in the breeding cattle, low labor input and know that we would have some payoff on hand.”
That payoff is a “good return on sweat equity or labor and a good-quality cow, good flesh, good body condition and good, clean environmental conditions,” he adds.