Craig Roberts knows the challenges facing livestock producers, who are chasing valuable weight gains while facing high feed prices.
Roberts, a University of Missouri forage specialist, says this past year’s drought and high prices luring more ground into row-crop production have added to the challenge.
But, Roberts says producers can overcome these challenges by getting the best forage production they can out of their land.
“I would call it forage yield and quality,” he says. “That’s what will give you the best gains.”
Feed prices fluctuate and can be costly, so getting the most out of forage production can be one of the best ways to improve profit margins, Roberts says.
“It’s about making use of the resources on the land and not purchasing gains.”
In addition to causing higher feed prices, the high crop prices have led to more ground being dedicated to growing corn and soybeans.
According to the USDA’s 2013 Planting Intentions Report released earlier this year, U.S. farmers will plant the most corn acres this spring since 1936 and the fourth-most soybean acres on record.
Roberts says this has made it difficult for producers to access enough pasture and hay ground.
“I’ve read the cause of that is a lot of ground going into crop production. (Pasture ground) needs to be used wisely.”
He says the starting point is good grazing management, including well-timed rotational grazing.
“If it is continuously grazed . . . plants are not given a rest period. It becomes just a collection of plants that can survive.”
Roberts says good rotational grazing involves cattle eating the grass down to 2 to 4 inches, depending on the time of year.
Several periods of grazing and regrowing work better than so-called “mob grazing” in which the pasture is allowed to grow and then get grazed only once or twice a year, he adds.
The grass grows quicker and yields more if it is grazed and allowed to re-grow several times.
“Mob grazing is not a good way to get quality or yield,” Roberts says.
“It’s not that constant cycle of grazing and re-growing. . . . Avoid continuous grazing and mob grazing if (producers) want high yield and quality.”
If grazing management is the most important item, Roberts says keeping pastures fertilized is second in importance. This involves soil testing and fertilizing when needed, he explains.
“(Producers) need to get on top of their pH and find out what their pH is.”
Roberts says producers also can boost forage production by planting legumes, such as red or white clover or lespedeza in their pastures. Legumes can be a good source of nitrogen and energy for livestock.
“Legumes tend to be higher in protein, higher in energy,” he adds.
The legumes also help fill the slower growth periods for pastures.
“For cool-season pastures, typically we get big growth in the spring and fall,” Roberts says. “(Legumes) even out the seasonal distribution.”
This past year’s drought and colder-than-normal conditions this spring have added to the challenge of growing quality forage.
According to the USDA’s Crop Progress and Condition April 21 report, Missouri pasture conditions were rated 6 percent very poor, 23 percent poor, 55 percent fair, 15 percent good and 1 percent excellent.
Missouri’s supply of hay and other roughages was rated 34 percent short, 38 percent very short, 27 percent adequate and 1 percent surplus.
For Iowa, the April 21 USDA report rated pastures at 18 percent very poor, 27 percent poor, 38 percent fair, 15 percent good and two percent excellent.
Despite these difficult conditions, Roberts says maintaining these practices over time will yield benefits. He stresses having a long-term outlook.
“I think producers need to look at their pastures strategically. It’s what to do to make it better over the next 5 to 10 years, not what can I do to make them better in May.
“It’s not whatever’s on the immediate horizon. I think it would be smart to take the long-term view.”
Roberts says that means investing in the management practices that have been proven to work.
“It’s a cliche, but it’s true. If you have an unproductive soil, if the pH is below 5, and if the P and K nutrients are lacking, the yields and quality won’t be there.”