Move cattle every day to graze only as much grass as they’ll eat. That’s the strategy two Arkansas cattlemen used to survive – with grass in pastures and cattle management plans intact – a summer drought so devastating for other producers.
Mitch Baltz runs a 33-cow herd on 110 acres of pasture near Powhatan; Eddie Prince, on 600 acres of pasture, grazes 250-300 stocker cattle and about 30 cows outside of Pocahontas.
Both use the University of Arkansas 300 Days of Grazing program that emphasizes maximizing forage opportunities and protecting pasture quality.
The four-year-old program is the brainstorm of an Extension agent advisory meeting, says John Jennings, Extension forage specialist.
“Fertilizer and feed costs were really starting to increase. We thought that if we could help producers maximize their forage use, which was really their biggest feed resource, then we could make more impact on their cost of production than with most other options,” he says.
Prince found he fed less hay using the grazing program. “You utilize the forage that you have,” he says. “When you move cattle every day, you keep a running inventory on your grass situation. You plan ahead at least a few days – and more like a week or two or even a month ahead. You have plenty of time to figure out your strategy before you run up against a wall, drive out to the pasture and find you’re completely out of grass.”
The program works, adds Baltz. He rarely feeds hay, which is an immediate cost savings.
A system of rotational grazing, stockpiling and strip grazing the stockpiled forage has improved his pasture production. With a little rain, even a drought year like this one will produce a substantial amount of stockpiled and strip-grazed forage.
Stockpiling fescue for winter grazing and bermudagrass for late-fall grazing can be very successful, even coming off a drought year, says Jennings. Producers who followed the program and didn’t overgraze in 2011, another drought year, were rewarded with pastures that recovered that fall.
They also saved quite a bit of money, he notes. “No one believed you could grow grass during a drought. But they followed the recommended practices, got their fertilizer out on time, had their fields in condition and they got just a small amount of rain at the right time. They were able to make some good growth.”
“Strip grazing the stockpiles makes a lot of difference,” explains Baltz. “You’ve got that stockpile – and if you just turn the cows in on 10-15 acres, they are going to waste so much of it. If you strip graze it, it will go so much further.”
Cattle loose in a field will consume 35% of the available forage. If strip-grazed, 60-70% of the forage will be utilized, he says. Baltz uses polywire on reels to section off a strip of pasture with two lines of electric wire. Each morning, he leapfrogs one wire to move the cows.
“It takes about 10 minutes. At first, I had to work with the system. If, in the morning, the cows have a bit left, I’ve given them a pinch too much. If the ground is bare and they are bawling, then I didn’t give them quite enough.”
Prince often hears producers complain that moving fence every day is too much trouble. But the system works for him, even with new stockers coming through every three to four months. Once the cattle understand what you want, they’re easy to manage, he relates. “You can see if you want to do it for an investment of $300-400 for a charger, some wire and posts.”
The most challenging part to the 300 Days of Grazing system is learning how much grass the cattle need. “If you don’t graze the grass off and you get litter from the grass that has been stepped on, then you get the shading effect. That makes a tremendous difference on the pasture’s recovery rate,” Prince says. Rather than culling his herd for lack of grass, he has grass to graze and will be buying stockers soon.
The program’s strategy includes feeding hay during drought to reduce pasture stress and letting pastures catch up, says Jennings.
“Overgrazed forages have very short root systems and can’t respond when we get recovery conditions. By having a good pasture plan when things get tough, we may pull the cattle up and feed them hay for a period of time. When we get rain, and we’ve got good fertility out ahead of the rain, we can go back in and rotationally graze.” Altering grazing practices helps protect the forage, he says.
“Another option (for fall or winter grazing) would be to plant wheat, ryegrass or forage turnips,” notes Jennings. The winter annuals should be planted the very end of August or early September, when weather is on a cooling trend. “If we do get some rain, those forages will grow quite well.”
The program features a variety of practices, but producers don’t have to adopt them all to be successful, the specialist adds. Pick out one or two new ones to add to your grazing program and think beyond what is currently happening with the weather.
“One of the big parts of our 300-day grazing program is having a plan for the year,” Jennings says. “In the spring, we typically have a certain type of weather – cool and wet – and we make a plan for that. The summer is usually hot and it can be dry; we make a plan for that. In the fall, we can stockpile or plant winter annuals, and we have a plan. We know the weather is going to change and we plan for if the weather is typical. Sometimes that means starting a practice even if conditions aren’t favorable because we know they should get favorable.”
For information on the 300 Days of Grazing program, visit bit.ly/RzT6eD.