A 100 percent forage foundation | TSLN.com

A 100 percent forage foundation

Loretta Sorensen

Photos by Loretta Sorensen

It’s taken nearly 10 years for Chamberlain, SD ranchers Dr. Julie Williams (DVM) and her husband Larry Wagner to transform all their crop ground back to grass in order to support their beef cattle on 100 percent forage. They’ve also carefully selected cattle that possessed the traits necessary to succeed on forage.

As the Wagner’s tested their Irish Black and Hereford yearling bulls this summer to see how they fared over the long and cold Dakota winter, they weren’t surprised at what they found but were definitely pleased with the data testing provided.

“The bulls were 12 and 13 months old before we ultra-sounded and semen tested them,” Dr. Julie says. “After wintering with no grain, the bulls’ gains were low. Most of the calories they ate over winter went to maintenance and staying warm. That’s the only negative I can see for these 100 percent forage raised bulls that lack the extra energy grain-fed animals have during extremely cold conditions.”

The Wagners found that their bulls are pretty stout and rank either frame 3 or 4. They produce both Irish Black and Hereford bulls. The Irish Black (IB) bulls’ birth weights ranged from 78 to 83 pounds. The highest weight gain among the IB bulls from Dec. 11, 2008 to June 29, 2009 was a bull that saw a gain of 224 pounds.

The IB scrotal measurements ranged from 30 to 38.5 centimeters. Ribeye Area measurements started at 9.76 inches and measured as large as 12.93 inches.

The Hereford bulls’ birth weights ranged from a low of 62 to a high of 89. The highest weight gain from Dec. 11, 2008 to June 29, 2009 was a Hereford bull that saw a gain of 228 pounds. Scrotal circumference measurements ranged from 29 to 33.5 centimeters. Ribeye Area measurements ranged from 8.43 inches to 12.69 inches.

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“We were pretty impressed with most of the ribeye areas, shapes and marbling scores for bulls that weren’t on grain,” Dr. Julie says. “All the bulls ultrasounded tender. They have continued to gain on grass.”

Dr. Julie notes that, since the Wagners raise their bulls on 100 percent forage, they don’t see the ‘melt’ that can occur when grain-fed bulls go to pasture during breeding season. Grass-fed cattle add excess weight over summer and use stored fat for winter maintenance. Forage-raised bulls gain condition while breeding cows.

Part of the results the Wagners see in their bulls’ data is their selection of genetic traits that include muscling and ability to convert forage energy to body fat (marbling).

“When we started making the transition on our operation to 100 percent forage with no grain, we knew we needed thick, smaller-framed animals that could efficiently convert forage to energy and weight gain,” Dr. Julie says. “Bigger butts and nice ribeyes with good carcass quality are the traits we’ve selected.”

The Wagners’ Herefords and Irish Black bulls are fed intermediate wheat grass hay throughout winter. Intermediate wheat grass is easy to grow and serves as the backbone of the Wagner’s winter feed supply. Big Bluestem paddocks provide a high carbohydrate grass and thus high energy forage for their summer forage chain. Fat cattle and pairs run on and rotate through Big Bluestem paddocks because the high carbohydrates in the forage provide the energy they need for ample gain.

“Big Bluestem is the forage we use to finish our fat cattle. It’s costly to plant and may take a long time to get started,” Dr. Julie says. “It won’t grow until conditions are right. We have been at the point of wondering about certain planted paddocks, questioning if it would ever come up. Some of it took several years to become established. When we finally had adequate moisture to get it growing it did very well. Dealing with weed pressure until Blue Stem is ready to be used can be frustrating, but once it’s established you can’t beat it for summer grass.”

Part of the Wagners’ beef production process is calving in May and June and weaning in October.

“Depending on what our grass situation is, we’ll wean around the end of October, and put the cows on lower quality stockpiled grass before putting them on intermediate swaths. We’ll put calves on some grass regrowth before starting them on intermediate hay,” Dr. Julie said. “We start the process by weaning across an electric fence. The cows and calves can see each other and touch noses for three or four days. Then we move the cows.”

The Wagners use Hereford and IB sires. The Hereford bloodlines use AI sons of the old CO2 bull. They also have mothers line bred CO2. Among the traits they see from these Hereford genetics are thicker, deeper cattle and docile natures.

Their IB bloodlines stem from a 10-year-old black, polled herd bull that carries a red gene. He is also “impressively thick and quiet.” IB calves out of the mothers ratioed 45 percent-plus of their mother’s body weight at weaning.

“Our bulls aren’t tall but they’re thick,” Dr. Julie says, “and thick is what weighs up. With the cold spring we had, our steers were behind too, but once the green grass hit they exploded. Yearling steers did pasture renovation on GF&P land and then went to Big Bluestem grass. Their carbohydrate intake from the Big Bluestem grass was really high and they grew quickly.”

The Wagners manage six or seven groups of cattle on a regular basis in the summer because they keep their purebred Irish Blacks, straight Herefords and cross-bred IB cows, purebred yearling heifers, yearling commercial heifers, yearling grass cattle and grass fat cattle in separate groups. Maintaining a continuous chain of forage is their biggest challenge.

“If you don’t provide excellent quality forage, the cattle don’t have the building blocks they need to grow and gain,” Dr. Julie said. “Our cows get really fat over summer and then use their back fat for energy through the winter. One of our friends said his dad told him, ‘You can’t starve a profit into a cow,’ and we believe that.”

One of the Wagner’s main goals with their beef operation is to achieve low-cost production and utilize as little fossil fuel as possible to accomplish that goal. Grass-fed cattle typically experience few health issues and the Wagners have found that to be true of their herd.

“Larry loves cattle and he loves working with grass,” Dr. Julie says. “We both like watching the calves and yearlings grow. We know they’re healthier now on grass than our cattle were before. We enjoy the fact that they’re happy and fat critters. We also really enjoy eating our own beef.”

the wagners can be reached 605-894-4363 or at wagner@midstatesd.net to discuss their operation.