For four summers now, Steve Redding has put 2¼ lbs. of gain/head/day on mid-weight heifers grazing in the heat of the northern Mississippi summer.

“Instead of ¾ lb./day of gain like I normally get on grass that time of year, I get about 2½ lbs.,” says the Oxford veterinarian and rancher.

His secret is corn, grazed right where it grows.

Redding typically buys 350-lb. heifers in late winter, straightens them out and has them ready for spring green-up. From mid-July to late August, he puts the smaller animals on a 13-acre pasture sown to corn in late March or early April. When the cattle go into the paddock, the corn is usually in the soft-dough stage.

The 13 acres carry about 30 head for 75-90 days. He sends all the cattle to a feedlot, usually at a little under 650 lbs. He says the corn planting costs him about $100/acre, planted in a no-till method by neighbor John Briscoe. Steve Redding and his business partner and uncle, James Redding, background 1-2 potloads of stocker cattle/year. Steve Redding believes the returns easily outweigh the inputs.

“You can figure it at almost three calves to the acre and a gain of 2-2½ lbs./day,” he says.

At a minimum of 75 days, Redding is putting about 170 lbs. of gain each on 30 animals, for a total of 5,100 lbs., or 390 lbs./acre. Depending on how you figure the gain value, Redding's pastured corn appears to be turning a good profit against the $100 cost of establishment.

The research agrees

In fact, Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers recently found similar results when they studied the methods and productivity of pastured corn. Their steers gained 2 lbs./day and the corn produced 200 grazing days/acre.

At three locations, two in north Mississippi and one in Tennessee, the researchers used a summer-grazing period typically lasting 50-80 days. Stocking rates in the trials varied from 3-6 head/acre. Like Redding's operation, MSU researchers planted no-till corn into existing pastureland.

In most cases, the steers came off pastured corn and went on to the feedlot for 100 days, posting a solid post-grazing performance of 4½ lbs./head/day. Corn grazing was so successful, however, at one high-yielding location in 2004, researchers actually finished steers on corn pasture with 153 days of grazing. Those animals graded 32.5% Choice and 67.5% Select carcasses.

Despite the potential for finishing cattle on pastured corn, lead researcher Mike Boyd sees corn grazing in the Southeast primarily as a system to improve stocker-calf performance in late summer to early fall. The problem with finishing cattle in the Southeast is the lack of processing facilities, he says.

Respectable economics

The economics of corn grazing weren't well tested in the Mississippi trial. The only analysis compared the group of cattle going from grazed corn to the feedlot with a group going to the feedlot directly from winter ryegrass. The problem with that analysis, Bell says, is the corn-grazed cattle probably don't need 100 days in the feedlot.

The MSU research was the largest corn-grazing project of late, but other studies provide some interesting economics that might be applied:

  • In Kentucky research from 2002, steers grazing corn had a positive net return of $21.04/head with a cost of gain of 34¢/lb. This compared with steers fed a corn feedlot-type ration that lost $10.45/head and had a cost of gain of 65¢/lb.

  • In Ohio research published in 1998, 39 Angus heifers grazed Baldridge Grazing Maize from Sept. 15 to Nov. 10. The heifers started at 789 lbs. and gained 121 lbs. in 56 days, averaging almost 2.2 lbs./day. Cost per acre totaled $129, and Ohio researchers calculated a net return of $224/acre.

  • Minnesota research published in 2002 compared corn grazing with machine harvesting of corn. Researchers there estimated profits from corn grazing at $347/acre and profits from corn harvest at $23/acre.

  • Pennsylvania researchers determined the ideal time to graze standing corn is at the milk-dough stage. Their calculations for economic yield from grazing showed corn at the silking stage averaged $260/acre, while the corn in the milk-dough stage averaged $334/acre.

If these profit margins are truly representative, the old age-old standard of “hogging down the corn,” might become the cattleman's combine of the future.

Alan Newport is a freelance agricultural writer from Carnegie, OK.

Cattle size and age matters

Heavier, older cattle usually gain the most from corn grazing.

Retired Mississippi State University researcher Mike Boyd says cattle above 750 lbs. do best, especially as the corn matures. Lighter cattle seem to be less efficient at eating the ears, perhaps because their back teeth are less developed and they're poorer at shelling the corn.

Boyd and other corn graziers say young cattle, when first turned into corn, usually don't know what to do. Mississippi grazier Steve Redding says his calves usually spend the first few hours just wandering the pasture perimeter eating the grass along the edges.

Once cattle begin to eat standing corn, they start with the leaves, then the ends of the ears, then the whole ears, and finally they eat much of the stalks. As they acclimate to the corn, and as it matures, they begin eating the ears first, then the leaves, and finally the stalk above the ear.

“Pastured” corn means pasture

These Mississippi corn graziers are planting corn into pasture, not cropland.

“There's a common misconception among producers that typical pastureland won't produce adequate corn yields; we proved that wasn't the case,” says Mississippi State University's Matt Bell.

He notes the practice of no-till production allows corn to be successfully grown on sloped terrain without the risk of soil erosion.

In this very dry summer, MSU scientists estimated the Reddings' corn yield, if it were harvested, at an average 94 bu.
Alan Newport

Some specifics for growing and grazing corn

Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers recommend high-yielding, Roundup-ready corn varieties and older cattle for corn graziers.

While some corn graziers use grazing-maize varieties, research shows they produce lower grain yield, and thus lower energy and lower animal gains, says MSU graduate student Matthew Bell.

Prior to corn grazing, all the steers came off bermudagrass, switchgrass or fescue.

To eliminate undergrowth, the researchers applied glyphosate (Roundup) when the corn reached V5 to V8 maturity. This is an important step, Bell says, because an understory of pasture forages gives cattle another option for grazing. This cuts grain consumption, which lowers energy intake, reducing average daily gain.

Researchers fertilized with 160 lbs. of actual N/acre, using ammonium nitrate, and put the steers in when the corn was in the late-milk stage. The steers were pulled when the last available corn had been eaten.

Although Oxford, MS, veterinarian Steve Redding simply turns his cattle into the corn and leaves them until everything is gone, most corn graziers prefer strip grazing. It's less wasteful and helps limit corn intake, decreasing the potential for acidosis as the cattle are warming up to the high-energy fodder.

“They really make a mess when you first turn them in,” says researcher Mike Boyd. “I make them clean it up before they go into another paddock.”