Unless the economics of cash cropping improve, look for “cattle crossing” signs as livestock move east.

“We grow more forage by accident than the West grows on purpose,” one eastern Corn Belt grazing enthusiast said at the recent Great Lakes International Grazing Conference in Battle Creek, MI.

At that conference, University of Illinois Extension educator Ed Ballard talked about this waste of feed and the economics of integrating livestock into cropland by managed grazing.

He collected data from farms on 200-bu. corn land in central Illinois. While corn-soybean producers were netting at best $60/acre, graziers were making $400-500/acre.

One producer Ballard works with produced 1,174 lbs. of beef/acre by grazing stockers from April to September at a cost of 23¢/lb. Using management-intensive and year-around grazing, such levels will be “pretty common” in the future, Ballard says.

“Over the last 20 years, cash-crop income per acre has declined with many years showing little or no profit. Many farmers are living off government payments and depreciation,” he says. “Many have been looking for an alternative crop. This is where grass-based animal agriculture has gained momentum over the last 10 years.”

Grazing also provides a less confining and laborious option to confinement livestock systems, Ballard says. Costs are lower with less need for buildings and equipment, less labor for harvesting and manure hauling and better animal health.

Discovering that grazing can be year-round — with only a few “challenging periods” during which producers might need stored feed — has added to the appeal. So has the introduction of forage varieties and species that can be grazed through the winter.

Using such practices as late-season aerial seeding of rye, oats and turnip mixtures into standing corn, crop growers can “doublecrop” — integrating livestock into their enterprises.

Ballard sees an eastward movement of livestock production as Corn Belt crop producers convert their poorest and rolling land to permanent pasture and use their best land more intensively by both cropping and winter grazing.

The potential is exciting, he says. “Graziers are the only upbeat group in agriculture.”

Feeding machine-harvested hay keeps per-cow costs at $1-1.50/day on many beef farms, Ballard says. But graziers cut that in half.

Cliff Schuette, Breese, IL, is another producer Ballard works with. He says total feed costs in his operation have been running $50-100/cow/year. Schuette has converted his most rolling land to permanent pasture and now doublecrops his good cropland by grazing through winter.

“In early August, a few things need to be done for feed in the fall and winter months,” he says. “The first thing I look at is flying on some oats, rye and turnips over my cornfields.”

As soon as the combine leaves the fields, fences are installed for rotational grazing of oats, rye, turnips, lost corn, husks and stalks.

“This is a perfect mix of high-quality forage with the dry matter needed to balance the diet,” Schuette says.

He also stockpiles fescue in late summer and fall for late-winter grazing.

Ballard recently won funding for the Dudley Smith Initiative, a University of Illinois research project studying integration of livestock into cropping systems. The project will compare extended rotations in cool-season pasture; permanent pasture of native, warm-season grasses; winter grazing on cash-crop rotations of corn and spring oats with cover crops; and corn-soybean rotations with no grazing.

The study also will look at the effects of “sustainable” systems on rural communities.

Dick Lehnert is a Lansing, MI-based freelance writer.