A shortage of cattle feed, and the high cost of the feed that is available, is forcing producers to scramble for alternatives this year. Grazing cornstalks is a good option that should be considered, says Aaron Stalker, a range systems specialist at the University of Nebraska’s (UNL) West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte.

“A lot of folks don’t realize the great and underutilized cattle feed resource cornstalks are. That's particularly true in Nebraska where 70% of corn gets at least some irrigation water, but only 25% of the available cornstalks are grazed. It's not a high-quality feed, but a mature, non-lactating cow will gain body condition under an appropriate stocking rate," he says.

In fact, Stalker says recent research conducted at UNL's Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory research facility compared the performance of cows wintered solely on cornstalks, with cows wintered on native winter range in the Sandhills and supplemented with a 32% protein supplement.

"At a stocking rate on cornstalks of 1½ animal unit months/acre, or 45 grazing days/acre, the cows on cornstalks gained the same amount of body condition without supplement as did the supplemented cattle grazing pretty good native range in the Sandhills," Stalker says.

$1/cow/day in savings

Bruce Anderson, UNL forage specialist, says winter grazing corn stalks can save over $1/day/cow compared to feeding expensive hay.

"But the way you manage grazing of stalks by your cattle can have a big effect on its success. For instance, maybe you have a goal of feeding as little protein supplement as possible while winter grazing. You must make sure you have enough acres so your stocking level can be light enough to allow cattle to select just the higher-quality plant parts to eat. When the grain, husks and leaves are gone, move to a fresh field," he says.

He says cornstalks can also be utilized as "filler" while limit-feeding corn, distiller’s grains, or other more nutrient-dense cattle feeds. In that case, high stocking levels and unrestricted access might be best.

Whatever your strategy, consider carefully the level of nutrition the animals are getting from the stalk pasture so you neither underfeed nor overfeed expensive supplements, Anderson adds.

Stalker concurs that the first and foremost consideration in grazing corn stalks for cattle feed is stocking rate.

“Different parts of a corn plant vary widely in their nutrient content. When turned into a cornfield, the first thing cows seek out is the downed ears. Next, in order of cattle's preference, are the husks, followed by the leaves.”

The husks are more digestible and nutrient-dense than leaves but make up only about 12% of the residue left in a field. Meanwhile, the leaves are capable of allowing a mature, non-lactating cow to maintain her body weight. Because the stalks and cobs are of poorer quality, cows forced to eat them will lose body condition.

“That’s why stocking rate is so important. If you move the cows to a new field as soon as they finish eating all the husks and leaves, they’ll perform really well during the winter,” Stalker says.

Because trucking is potentially a major cost of grazing cornstalks, a rancher can greatly spread out his fixed costs by staying in the cornfields longer. And since grazing cornstalks is so much less expensive than a lot of other cattle feed options this year, there’s incentive to stay in the cornfields as long as possible.

“Obviously, if a producer is paying by the day, it’s to his advantage to have the cows moved to a new field more often, because the cows will perform better. However, if he doesn’t have an unlimited amount of acres rented, or if he’s paying by the acre, then there’s an optimum stocking rate,” Stalker says.

A decision support tool has been developed by UNL to help producers determine the optimum stocking rate by estimating the costs and returns associated with grazing cornstalks. Find it by going to beef.unl.edu and searching for "Cornstalk Grazing Calculator."