When people find out Leo Hollinger preconditions and/or stockers 6,000 head of cattle/year on 350 acres, it's easy to imagine either an overgrazed, muddy mess or a dust bowl, depending on the season. Nope. Would you believe he even gets two cuttings of hay off the bulk of those acres?

“We have less than 10 acres at any time that doesn't have a sod, and that is right at the feed bunks,” says the Camden, AL cattleman.

Yes, he does feed byproducts rather than depend on grazing gains for the cattle he preconditions. And no, all the cattle aren't on the 350 acres all the time. But that's still an awful lot of hooves and mouths between the fences at some point during the year.

While he has a total of 21 pens on that portion of his operation, the system he favors is made up of 100 acres of Bermuda and Bahia grass sod divided into three triangles of 25-35 acres. The top of each triangle is two to five acres and is lined with feed bunks. The bottom part is 20-30 acres and does double duty as a hay field.

Year-round strategy

The cycle on the sod triangles starts in June with Hollinger's custom preconditioning operation. Depending on pen size, he stocks from 70-200 head/pen. “There are a lot of nutrients being put on those pens,” he remarks.

The calves in the custom-preconditioning program are from 30-40 different cow-calf operations in Alabama's Black Belt Region, most from within a 100-mile radius. “That type of soil isn't very conducive to weaning calves because of the mud,” Hollinger says.

Obviously, the soil and the management at Hollinger's operation are conducive to weaning calves. He puts anywhere from 2¼-3 lbs./day of gain on them with byproduct feeds. The calves that are around after he gets his last cutting of hay also go in the larger paddocks for grazing.

After they've been on his place for 45 days or so, he markets them in 50,000-lb. truckload lots straight off his farm with help from the staff at Linden Stockyards.

In October, he'll let them graze the paddocks down, then sod-seeds Marshall ryegrass and crimson clover in the triangles. “Ryegrass heals up the pens. It puts a sod back on them,” he reports. As for the clover, he's happy to let it make nitrogen rather than having to buy it.

He normally no-tills in 15-20 lbs. of ryegrass/acre and 20 lbs. of clover. “If we go over 20 lbs. of ryegrass seed, the clover doesn't do well,” he says.

At times, there are still cattle in the pens when he drills in the ryegrass and clover. “I don't recommend it, but I really can't tell it hurts it,” he says.

In the meantime, he's buying cattle of his own, usually around 1,500 head of 300- to 500-lb. stocker cattle, mostly farm fresh but also some from the stockyard. Those he pays someone else to precondition, and then they go to a rented farm. “We want to assure our customers we won't expose their cattle to diseases,” he says.

By January, the custom-preconditioned cattle are almost all gone, and the ryegrass and clover are ready for grazing. He starts moving his own calves from rented farms to the triangles.

By March, he'll have the ryegrass and clover stocked at around three calves/acre and graze through May. “We try to have enough inventory to manage the spring flush of ryegrass, and try not to harvest any ryegrass hay. Those are our cheapest gains.”

He'll normally spread one ton of chicken litter/acre on the forage, too. “The litter is not acid forming. It's a slow-release nitrogen that's higher in phosphorus and potassium, and works good with clover.”

He says the pH on the 100 acres runs from 6.2 to 7.5.

University of Georgia Extension forage specialist Dennis Hancock says the litter is a good choice for fertilizer but cautions, “Long-term, he might want to track the phosphorus content of his soil since he's bringing in nutrients with the litter and byproducts.”

For now, it's part of an economical equation for grazing. Hollinger says his out-of-pocket expenses for the ryegrass and litter are around $60/acre.

“We'll get two lbs. or more of gain a day from the cool-season grass,” he adds. Normally, those cattle only get byproducts if their gains dip below around 1½ lbs./acre.

By the end of May or the first of June, the ryegrass is gone and the cattle are marketed. The Bermuda grass and Bahia are growing and getting ready for hay making in June or July.

Georgia's Hancock says the Bermuda/Bahia combo is a good choice since it has to stand up to heavy use. However, if Hollinger was depending on the forage for gain or hay alone, Hancock says, “He might want to go with Bermuda grass, especially Tifton 85 Bermuda grass, since it's higher in digestibility than Bahia grass.”

As far as hay production, it's rain-dependent, but Hollinger says his production normally ranges from 3-4, 900-lb. bales/acre with adequate moisture to 2-3 bales/acre in dry years.

After the first cutting, he may apply 50 units of commercial nitrogen/acre. “It depends on how much hay we're going to need,” he explains.

By then, the five-acre pens are starting to fill up with calves in the preconditioning program. All without a mess. “We try to be proactive,” Hollinger says. “We fence out the wet areas and the filter strips and catch water in the settlement areas. We let the sediment settle out before it goes in a major creek.”

Becky Mills is a freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.

Easy come, easy go

Even though Leo Hollinger keeps the cost of gain down on both his customers' cattle and his own, he's not about to let any gains slip away due to rough handling. “We can't overemphasize how we handle cattle — from the first day we get them until we put them on the truck,” states the Camden, AL cattleman.

“With a new set of cattle, we try to establish some sort of relationship with them the first hour they're here. We stand there and fool with them for 10-15 minutes and find their flight zone. They gain confidence.”

“It's a tough time when they get off the trailer, especially if they're just off the cow,” says Mary Ellen Hicks, animal scientist at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, GA. “The calves are trying to attach themselves to somebody. As long as you move through them quietly and deliberately, it's a good opportunity to step in and establish a leader-type position with the cattle.”

When Hollinger actually works the new arrivals, he says, “We try to handle cattle quietly. Eliminate any delays and prepare. Have your tools there. Make sure your pens are in good shape.”

If he has to doctor a sick calf later on, he'll do it in the pen with an ATV and a dart gun. In moving cattle from pasture to pasture, he'll also use trained border collies.

After the cattle go out on grazing, he'll take a bag of range cubes and walk through them once or twice a week so they stay used to having humans near.

When it's time to sell them, he thinks ahead. “One practice I try to follow is to group the cattle like we'll sell them. We sell all we can in 50,000-lb. load lots. I try to sort them off and bring them in a week or two ahead of time near the scales. Our paddocks are laid out so they funnel into one lane. Then they can just walk out of the paddock into the lane and onto the scales instead of goosenecking them that day. They can gain back the shrink from being moved.”

“That's fantastic,” says Hicks. “He's planning far enough ahead of time that the cattle can do what comes naturally to them and practically move themselves. He's keeping the stress off of them.”

Hollinger adds, “Facilities play a big part. Having scales on the farm is worth at least 1% to me.

“Cattle handling is something you have to learn,” he says. “It's an art, not an exact science, and it only comes with practice.”