We need to be more drought resilient – Part 1

By Eric Bailey

The author is an assistant professor and extension beef specialist at the University of Missouri - Columbia.

Eric Bailey
Drought has affected wide swaths of the United States recently. For much of 2022, a large area of Missouri faced severe drought, and cattle producers are feeling the effects on their businesses.

Do we need to consider drought moving forward when making decisions about carrying capacity on farms and ranches?

This question is always top of mind for Western cattle producers in arid regions, but I am going to make a case for why those running cattle in parts of the country that receive over 35 inches of precipitation per year should also be thinking about it.

I looked back at weather data from a Columbia, Mo., weather station recently. In the last 80 years, there were 18 periods of drought (defined as less than 80% of average annual precipitation). That translates to a drought period once every 4.44 years. The last two periods of drought to spread across a wide swath of Missouri were in 2018 and 2012. For low-margin, high-capital businesses like beef production, drought poses a significant risk factor.

I project producers to pay over $3 per cow per day in feed (hay plus supplement) this winter. The 2018 drought was severe but had a silver lining. Commodity feedstuffs were cheap, and in some areas, producers were buying a ton of soybean hulls for the same price as they were a 5x6 round bale of hay. The commodity markets are much different in 2022, with most feeds double the price from four years ago.

How do we build a more drought-resilient farm or ranch? In this issue and the next, we will discuss five factors that can help make an operation more tolerant of drought.

Managed grazing systems

Managed grazing systems are a big opportunity to enhance farm profit and sustainability. We make management decisions to boost pasture forage yield, but a cow does not harvest every pound of pasture grass. A cow grazing the same pasture 365 days a year will only consume between one fourth and one third of the forage grown. Cattle foul (urinate and defecate on), trample, and refuse to use portions of pastures in a “continuous” grazing system. The larger the area they have at one time, the more selective they will be about which parts of the pasture they want to use and which ones to ignore.

A tall fescue pasture that is not fertilized with nitrogen in the spring will produce about 4,000 pounds of forage per acre, and one that is fertilized with 60 pounds of nitrogen will produce 6,000 pounds of forage per acre, or a 50% increase. An improvement of forage utilization from 25% to 40% will elevate the amount of forage eaten by a cow per acre by nearly the same amount.

Let’s compare fertilizer versus enhancing forage utilization without fertilizer. Twenty-five percent of 6,000 pounds is 1,550 pounds, and 40% of 4,000 pounds is 1,600 pounds. With today’s fertilizer prices, does it make more sense to maximize yield or to try to improve the utilization of forage already grown?

What will it take to raise forage utilization from 25% to 40%? According to research data, going from a single pasture continuously grazed to a six-paddock rotation system will raise forage utilization to over 40%.

In continuous grazing systems, cattle graze areas near water and shade more frequently. Plants in this area get minimal recovery time. Water placement may be in a corner of the pasture and not easy to change. When that occurs, perhaps use mineral supplements or shade to lure cattle to underutilized portions of the pasture, if breaking the pasture down into smaller paddocks is not possible.

I often hear from producers who are reluctant to implement grazing systems that are too expensive or too much work. An effectively managed grazing system does not have to mean all or nothing. An effective grazing system is possible without having to make daily moves from paddock to paddock or the need for installing a dizzying amount of temporary electric fence. The reality is that we have options on the farm already. If your farm has four to six pastures, yet you have cattle in each, consider grouping the cattle into one larger bunch and rotating them through the pastures. In doing so, you are allowing plants to rest and recover between grazing bouts.

Cost of haying versus grazing

A reasonable knee-jerk reaction to a system with less pasture forage growth is to secure more hay, whether that is from purchasing off-farm or finding additional fields to make hay. These approaches don’t make the most financial sense moving forward.

One number that could help producers make feed-planning decisions is knowing the cost of forage when grazed by a cow versus the cost of stored forages that are fed to cows. While the cost of having the cow harvest feed might seem difficult to calculate on the surface, it only requires a few numbers you already have access to.

Consider a scenario where you rent land for $65 per acre per year, and that land produces 3 tons of tall fescue per acre per year. Not all of that feed ends up in the cow’s mouth. We must apply a forage utilization rate to adjust the amount of feed that gets trampled, fouled, or otherwise refused for a beef cow. If no managed grazing system is in place, then less than one-third of that feed ends up in a cow’s mouth. Let’s assume for this example that no managed grazing system is in place and that 30% of the feed grown on a pasture will be consumed by a cow (30% of 3 tons is 1,800 pounds of feed). If it costs $65 to get 1,800 pounds of feed, then every 1,000-pound bale of this feed costs $36.11.

Can you buy 1,000 pounds of hay for $36.11? Certainly, there are years when you can, but another important question is, “Can you produce hay for $36.11 per bale next year?” I have been a strong advocate for less haying and more grazing, despite resistance from producers. My argument against hay boils down to cost. The University of Missouri’s fescue-clover hay planning budget for 2023 estimates a yield of 6,000 pounds per acre and a cost per acre of $297.52. That works out to be $49.59 per 1,000-pound bale.

Should $13.48 ($49.59 to $36.11) per 1,000 pounds of feed be a motivating factor to divest from a haymaking and feeding enterprise? I know of many 200-cow operations that are putting up over 1,000 bales of hay per year and feeding it throughout the winter. Cutting that in half would save the farm nearly $7,000, or $35 per cow per winter. Remember, this math is built upon a continuous grazing system. Imagine the possibilities when you stack tools like rotational grazing systems with a commitment to graze more and feed less.

Nitrogen use efficiency

How many pounds of forage are produced for each pound of nitrogen fertilizer applied to tall fescue pastures? Many factors play into this question, but it appears that in the next few years, nitrogen fertilizer is going to be expensive, and we must put a sharp pencil to paper and identify whether nitrogen fertilizer will be a profitable practice going forward.

Let’s look at an example of late summer fertilization to boost the fall growth of tall fescue pastures. The consensus from multiple state extension services is that every pound of nitrogen applied in August produces 20 pounds of additional forage dry matter. If nitrogen fertilizer costs $1 per pound, then each additional pound of forage costs 5 cents. A 1,000-pound bale of this forage would cost $50. The quality of this feed grown is outstanding and should be factored into this decision. Stockpiled tall fescue can meet the nutrient requirements of a lactating fall calving cow for much of the winter, assuming enough forage is available to keep her fed.

We can absorb $1 per pound of nitrogen and be profitable if the forage response is reliable. If the forage response to nitrogen is only 10 pounds of additional forage, then your 1,000-pound bale costs $100. Reliability of fall precipitation becomes an unknown factor in making decisions to fertilize with nitrogen in the fall. Experts in the field assure me that most of the nitrogen not used in the fall will still be available to the plant in the spring, but often we already have more forage than we know what to do with in the spring.

In the next issue, we will discuss how big cows and stocking rates play into making your farm more drought resilient.

This article appeared in the January 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 10-11.

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