The Valhalla of cow-calf production — running cows year-round without feeding hay or supplement other than salt and mineral — is closer than you think.

In the “300 Days of Grazing Project,” University of Arkansas (UA) researchers carried 38 breeding-age cows on 130 acres of bermudagrass and tall fescue grass last year. They only had to feed hay 18 days and they lowered their breakeven cost of production to 67¢/lb., which was 12% lower than projected.

It's all about stockpiling a complementary mix of warm-season and cool-season forages, and having cows in a tight enough calving window to exploit rotational grazing. Along the way, both forage utilization and fertilizer efficiency increase.

Rotational grazing

Picture 38 fall-calving crossbred cows with access to 40 acres of common bermudagrass and 90 acres of fescue (10 pastures). That's the foundation of the UA study. The strategy involves dividing this forage into seasonal grazing blocks that match the nutritional requirements of their fall-calving herd.

These cows calved from Sept. 1 to Nov. 1 of 2008. Calves were weaned and continued to graze until July 10, 2009, when they were marketed.

In the fall and winter, cattle strip-grazed bermuda and later in the winter stockpiled fescue. Strip-grazing here refers to grazing cattle 2-3 days, then extending an electric fence further back to allow another 2-3 days of grazing and so on.

Tom Troxel, UA Extension beef specialist, explains that, from mid-May until marketing, the cattle were grazed in a leader-follower grazing program, where the calves grazed the higher-quality bermudagrass first, followed by the cows. “Rather than sell them in May, the grazing flexibility allowed us to put another 105 lbs. on the calves before marketing,” Troxel says.

Though the strategy revolves around forage management, Troxel stresses, “the calving season has to be tight enough — no more than 90 days — to utilize methods like rotational grazing. There's no way this would work if you had calves coming six months of the year.”

UA researchers also employ management practices aimed at achieving a 90% calving rate and a 550-lb. weaning weight.

In the first year of the UA project, the calving rate fell short of the goal at 84%. Calves were lighter than the goal with adjusted weaning weights of 476 lbs. for the steers and 462 lbs. for the heifers. They had to replace six cows that were open or lost a calf. Costs ran higher than projected in several areas they had no control over. Yet, they were still able to decrease the breakeven cost of production. That's the power of taking a lion's bite out of cow feed costs.

In fact, Troxel says they're adding a dozen bred heifers to the project because the strategy allows the same resources to support more cattle.

“Grazing 300 days a year doesn't require a long list of forages. You can do it with a forage list as simple as fescue and bermuda by rotational grazing, managing fertilizer timing and stockpiling, but adding other forages over time can give you a winning hand more often,” explains John Jennings, UA Extension forage specialist (see “One approach to grazing year-round” on page 46).

The researchers say the concepts can work on any size operation. “Producers will find more opportunities as they use the strategy and adapt it to their unique operation,” Troxel says. “There is no one more innovative than a cattle producer.”

Table 1. Projected and actual production and income for 300-day grazing demonstrationa
Item Projected Actual
Total Animal Units Total Animal Units
Total lbs. of beef sold 23,275 613 36,156 951
Average price per lbs. received $0.90 $0.84
Income $20,964 $552 $30,372 $799
Income over specified costb $3,242 $85.34 $7,616 $200.41
Herd breakevenc $0.76 $0.63
aThe actual and budgeted amounts are for the July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, fiscal year.
bGross income minus the specified expenses. The specified expenses included salt and mineral, supplemental feed, veterinarian costs, growth implants, fly control, sales commission, hauling, day labor, pregnancy testing, bull cost or AI, breeding soundness examinations, replacement heifer or cow purchase, grazing lease, fertilizer, lime, purchased hay, herbicide, and miscellaneous.
cSpecified cost divided by lbs. of beef sold

One approach to grazing year-round

According to John Jennings, University of Arkansas (UA) Extension forage specialist, the key to making 300-day grazing work begins with a plan, which starts with a list of the resources available.

“Think about your pastures and note whether you have forages that can be grazed in each season — spring, summer, fall and winter. This tells you the potential for grazing 300 days,” Jennings explains.

In northern Arkansas, for instance, Jennings says about two-thirds of the pasture needs to be cool-season, like fescue or ryegrass; the other third needs to be warm-season, such as bermudagrass. That ratio would be reversed in the southern part of the state.

Tom Troxel, UA Extension beef specialist, advises anyone considering the strategy to crawl before they walk. “Just take one field or pasture the first year, one that is mostly tall fescue for example. Clip it in the August-September timeframe to get new growth, and then stockpile it. Experiment with that field the first year and then expand from there,” he says.

Jennings offers the following roadmap as an example of the strategy. It's how UA has achieved close to year-round grazing.

Winter through spring

  • Strip-graze any remaining stockpiled pasture.

  • Allow winter annual forages to reach 8 in. before grazing.

  • Limit grazing to two days per week with hay to utilize the high pasture quality. Winter annuals can be grazed earlier if strip-grazing or using paddocks.

Transition from winter to spring

  • Early fertilization on a couple of pastures can jump-start spring grazing.

  • Overseed legumes in closely grazed pastures.

  • Graze off winter weeds in bermuda.

  • Set up spring paddocks for early grazing.

Spring through summer

  • Begin rotational grazing as early as possible. Keeping the gates on pastures closed will let more grass grow than letting cows chase new grass over the whole farm.

  • Don't fertilize more area than can be utilized. It's better to fertilize some pasture for early grazing and wait to fertilize for the next season rather than promote grass that can't be used.

  • To favor legumes, control the grass canopy by graze/rest/graze — basically good rotational grazing management.

Transition from spring to summer

  • In mixed cool- and warm-season forage pastures, graze closely in late spring to release summer forage. This means removing ryegrass or fescue growth to release the lespedeza, crabgrass or bermuda underneath.

  • Rotationally graze spring legumes to let the cattle spread the nitrogen across the pasture to boost forage growth in late spring and summer.

Summer through fall

  • Rotational grazing will maintain forage availability longer into dry periods.

  • Don't fertilize more acres than needed.

  • Don't graze lespedeza or crabgrass too early or too short. Grazing lespedeza before the plants are 8 in. tall causes the plants to grow prostrate, forming low-growing plants that cattle can't graze effectively.

  • Keep bermuda rotationally grazed to maintain it in a vegetative stage. When seed heads emerge, the plant stops growing.

Transition from summer to fall

  • In early August, some bermuda pastures short and fertilize for stockpiling for fall grazing. Stockpiled bermuda is grazed from October through December. Stockpiled forage can save $20/cow compared to feeding hay.

  • In early September, graze fescue short and fertilize for stockpiling. Stockpiled fescue can be grazed from December through February.

  • In September, graze other bermuda pastures short to prepare for interseeding winter annuals in late September or early October.

  • Graze crabgrass, johnsongrass and lespedeza before frost.

Fall through winter

  • Managing for stockpiled pasture is cheaper than feeding hay, but feeding hay for a short period in the fall may allow better stockpiled forage growth if other pasture runs short.

  • Use temporary electric fence to strip-graze stockpiled pastures. Strip-grazing stockpiled pasture doubles the number of grazing days per acre.

  • Use lower-quality forage for dry cows and high-quality pasture or hay for weaned calves or lactating cows.

Transition from fall to winter

  • Graze bermuda and fescue short where annuals or clover will be planted in fall, then go to stockpiled pasture.

  • Don't graze winter annuals too early. Wheat or ryegrass should be 8 in. tall before grazing.
    Wes Ishmael