Corn grazing started out as a way to renovate a pasture of endophyte-infected fescue. But after two years, steer performance and economics also look good.
“I looked at the projections for getting rid of toxic fescue and it was $200 an acre to re-establish fescue containing a non-toxic endophyte,” says Mississippi State University agronomist Glover Triplett. “I figured I could cut that cost significantly by letting a crop pay for killing the fescue.”
Mississippi State animal scientist Michael Boyd was an easy sell. In the South, ryegrass usually plays out by April or May, which generally means stocker cattle have to go then. He wanted an alternative.
They both found their answers. In 2002, they made $140/acre over direct costs by grazing steers on corn. In 2003, they expanded the project to two locations. In one, they had almost a complete corn-crop failure but still broke even by grazing steers. In the other field, they made $170 over direct costs with $85/cwt steers.
In 2002, the steers gained almost too well — around 3 lbs/head/day. They had planned to send all of them to the feedlot, but some of the steers finished on the grazed corn and were harvested at Mississippi State.
Last year, the news was even better. “The gains were unbelievable,” says Boyd. “In one group, half of those steers, based on ultrasound, were grading Choice before they ever left.”
They entered the feedlot weighing 1,000 lbs in late October, gained 4.8 lbs/day for 100 days and averaged $1,500 each.
The lighter steers weighed 850 lbs going into the feedlot. They gained 4.25 lbs/day for 115 days and sold for an average of $1,375.
The project is continuing this year. But back to the beginning.
Corn hybrids were selected for grain yield and 105- to 115-day relative maturities. Late-maturing Group VIII soybeans were chosen to plant in the turnarounds. The corn and beans were both Roundup Ready. The corn was seeded for 30,000-32,000 plants/acre.
Both crops were no-tilled into bermudagrass-toxic fescue fields in April. Planting was followed by an application of 1½ pts/acre of paraquat. Roundup was applied at 1 qt/acre three weeks after planting.
“Five or six years ago we wouldn't have been standing here,” Triplett comments. “The door opened to no-till with the Roundup Ready varieties.”
In early to mid-July, they divided the fields with temporary electric fence so they could strip-graze, and stocked them with two 800-lb steers/acre.
“At 750 lbs and under, a steer can't put an ear of corn in his mouth,” says Boyd. “A big steer can shell the whole ear and spit out the cob. When the corn is above 18% moisture, they eat the cob and all.”
Surprisingly, acidosis isn't a problem.
“We allow them to adapt to the corn when it is in a fairly early, late-roasting-ear stage — when it's at a low acidosis level,” says Boyd. “At first the steers aren't really looking for corn. They eat the leaves and stalks and tips of the ears.”
When the corn becomes mature, he says they start eating whole ears.
The two researchers plant the soybeans to give the steers a protein source.
“Mature, uncooked soybeans have anti-metabolites that reduce gain and can make animals sick,” Boyd warns. “But they would have to eat 2 lbs/head/day.”
The beans stay in the green vegetative stage while the steers are grazing.
The cattle also eat the bermudagrass, crabgrass and foxtail that grow after the cattle have opened up the corn canopy.
In fall, workers either drill ryegrass while the cattle are still in the fields or plant fescue after they've mowed the cornstalks. In the meantime, the fields have more than earned their keep.
“With this system, you add value to the cattle and the crop,” Boyd states.