Just as Tom Larson's cool-season pastures hit their late-summer slump, his cattle begin grazing corn.
"The corn is tasseling and ready to be grazed when my bromegrass, timothy and clover pastures are at their least productive and need a short rest," says Larson, a St. Edward, NE, farmer and crop consultant.
Three years ago there were only about 10 farmers in Nebraska grazing cattle on corn, according to Larson. Since then, the number has grown fivefold, and the practice is gaining interest in other states, too.
"Grazing the maturing crop reduces costs of labor, machinery, handling and storage," says Fred Martz, a University of Missouri-Columbia animal scientist.
Corn can be grazed from tasseling through full maturity and into the winter, says Martz.
He's compiling data from two corn grazing studies he conducted last summer at the university's Forage Systems Research Center near Linneus.
"This research was farmer-driven," he says. "We were getting questions from people who are grazing corn and wanted more information."
In the first study, Martz seeded four acres with a blend of low-cost, conventional corn hybrids in late April. Twenty-four steers weighing 900-1,000 lbs each began grazing the field in early August. To control consumption and prevent foundering, Martz and his crew used electric wire to restrict grazing to a 3,000 square-foot patch each day.
"Our stocking density calculated out to 125 square feet per animal per day," Martz reports.
The cattle received no supplemental feed. During the eight-week grazing period, their average daily gain was 2.5 lbs.
In the second study, six acres of corn were planted in mid-June and 16 head grazed the crop for six weeks starting in early September. This later-planted corn didn't yield as well, so Martz reduced the stocking density to 250 square feet per animal per day or about 50-60 whole stalks per head daily.
Again, the cattle gained 2.5 lbs/ head/day.
Martz says whole-plant corn is a high-energy diet ideal for finishing cattle.
"The cattle get a 20% increase in energy intake from the corn vs. cool-season pastures," Martz says. "The higher energy helps the animal lay down fat. I think this type of grazing would work well with lactating dairy cows, too."
Adds Larson: "By eliminating yardage fees or custom feeding charges, producers can save money by finishing off their cattle in the cornfield. Plus, there are no bunks to clean, rations to mix or manure to haul."
A 1996 corn-grazing study by Terry Gompert, Knox County, NE, extension educator, yielded similar results.
Gompert achieved an average daily gain of 2.1 lbs on 49 steers. The cattle grazed from late July to early November and were moved daily to about 0.2 acre of fresh forage.
Gompert calculated that each pound of gain cost 32 cents compared to 60-65 cents/lb of gain at a commercial feedlot. He harvested 454 lbs of beef per acre.
If Martz does any more studies on corn grazing, he'll use hybrids better-suited for grazing.
"I don't think the cattle were eating as much as they could," he says. "Conventional hybrids have more stalk lignin than those developed specificallyfor forage production."
Larson seeds Baldridge Grazing Maize at a rate of 26,000 plants per acre in 15" rows. Developed by Dick Baldridge, a Cherry Fork, OH, corn breeder, that's a blend of silage hybrids selected for high whole-plant crude protein.
The seed costs around $90 per bag and is available through the Oldfield Seed Co., Mount Sterling,KY.