The author is an extension beef specialist with the University of Kentucky.

Jeff Lehmkuhler
When we combine the beef cow inventory of Tennessee with Kentucky, the number of cows managed pushes these states into the top five beef cow-calf states. The beef cow-calf sector of the southeastern U.S. produces a significant number of feeder calves. Many of these feeders move to a stocker operation to add weight prior to feedlot entry.

As grain prices rise and the cost of adding weight in the feedlot spikes, putting that weight on calves with grass becomes more attractive. Stocker operations with payment arrangements based on gain are seeing positive returns with the current high grain prices. Maintaining a productive forage base is essential to keep stocker systems competitive.

Productive forage stands are a function of several factors. The recent high fertilizer prices have resulted in some producers pulling back or eliminating fertility applications altogether. In the short term, this may go unnoticed as most of the nutrients are deposited back on the fields; however, uneven distribution of feces and urine and the exportation of nutrients in the animals will begin to lower forage production. Routinely pull soil samples and consult with your county extension agent, crop adviser, or fertilizer dealer to discuss soil test results.

Do not overlook liming fields to ensure soil pH allows for the optimal production of forages and availability of nutrients. Without maintaining a proper soil pH, you may not realize the full benefit from fertilizer applications.

Adjust for forage availability

Arguably, the simplest forage management consideration to improve the profitability of a stocker operation is to ensure adequate forage is available. Overgrazing is the primary factor to suboptimal performance of grazing cattle. When forage availability falls below approximately 1,200 pounds of dry matter per acre, forage intake can be reduced, which lowers nutrient intake and ultimately performance. Appropriate stocking rates need to be managed as cattle gain weight and forage growth changes over the growing season.

The scientific literature clearly shows that as stocking rate increases to the point that forage availability limits selectivity, daily gain is reduced. However, the balance is to find the stocking rate that supports the desired individual animal performance and pounds of beef produced per acre. As an example, research on early season stocking rates on tall fescue in central Kentucky revealed that as stocking rates rise from 500 pounds to 2,500 pounds per acre, average daily gain declines linearly. The research summary states, “. . . high stocking rate is much riskier with adverse growing conditions.” This past year’s extremely dry June put many stocker operators in a pinch as forage production became limited by dormancy.

High quality needed

Forage quality is the next key element to maintaining performance of stocker calves. A variety of options exist from annuals such as small cereal grains like wheat, triticale, oats, or annual ryegrass to perennial forages such as bermudagrass, fescue, and native grasses.

In the Fescue Belt, interseeding legumes such as red and white clover or lespedeza can boost the protein and digestibility of the forage consumed by stockers, which improves performance. Additionally, recent research by the USDA Food Animal Production Research Unit in Lexington, Ky., has demonstrated that red clover offers improvements in animal performance beyond the simple dilution of the alkaloids present in the fescue. With high fertilizer prices, the interseeding of legumes offers a low-cost nitrogen option as well.

Early in my career, I worked with forage colleagues in Wisconsin to look at performance of stockers on nonendophyte-infected tall fescue, soft-leaf tall fescue, or orchardgrass interseeded with either white or kura clover. At the time, corn prices were $2.10 to $2.30 per bushel, and given the yield of highly productive ground, I figured I could compete with row crops if we achieved 1,000 pounds of beef gain per acre. The University of Wisconsin’s Ken Albrecht and his student had previously achieved this with kura clover-grass pastures.

If the grazing season is 210 days, 4.75 pounds of gain per day is needed across the animals grazing — not on a per head basis. If the stocking rate is 2.5 head per acre in the early season, that means the target daily gain is 1.9 pounds per day per calf. Stocking rates must be adjusted as forage growth changes.

We reached just over 800 pounds per acre on the endophyte-free tall fescue two out of three years. Drought set in during the third year, limiting forage and beef production. Even in southern Wisconsin on the Arlington prairie, tall fescue was a performer and survived the heaving, grazing, and harsh winters. Kura clover was the only treatment that offered the potential to reach that lofty target of 1,000 pounds of beef per acre. Later, I learned that Garry Lacefield and colleagues at the University of Kentucky achieved 1,000 pounds per acre grazing alfalfa. Novel endophyte fescues and other forages from breeding programs have led to improvements in stocker production.

Stocker operators should be running budgets and considering management options that can improve forage production and quality to improve beef gain per acre. Here’s hoping that you have an early spring with just the right precipitation to keep forages growing all season long.

This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 12.

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