Intensive grazing management
If he had never raised beef before, Kevin Uhing of Hartington, NE, believes he might be having an easier time making the transition from grain-fed to grass-finished beef. Although he doesn’t consider himself an expert in producing grass-fed beef, Uhing shared what he’s learned about developing pastures and organizing a grazing system through an Iowa State University Extension Pasture Walk Sept. 3, 2009.
As a fourth generation farmer on the land his family settled in the late 1800s, Uhing is trying a number of methods to produce quality meat in an acceptable time frame and still maintain the quality of his land. Among the options he’s employed is the practice of grazing corn.
“You have to plant it densely,” he says. “And of course you have to either raise sterile corn or graze it before it puts ears on. It’s a high energy forage and you see terrific gains with it, especially from mid-July to September when grasses generally go dormant with the heat.”
Grazing corn has been utilized as a way to reduce production costs since feed costs have been shown to make up 50 to 70 percent of the cost of producing beef. Corn is a tall grass that can be a viable alternative forage in some operations.
Corn has been used successfully as forage in summer, fall and winter, with the potential to produce more than 10 tons of forage dry matter per acre. Few annual crops compare with corn’s dry-matter yield per acre and cost per pound of gain.
“The cattle love it,” Uhing says. “You want the corn to be at least three or four-foot tall when you put cattle on it. If you raise corn that doesn’t set ears, you generally don’t need to limit the cattle on grazing it.”
Standing corn has the nutritive composition to meet the requirements for many categories of livestock, including stocker cattle, beef heifers, and cows. Dairy farmers have grazed corn to feed dairy cows and dairy heifers for breeding. Sheep, goats and swine have also successfully grazed corn.
Any corn hybrid can be grazed. A field only intended for grazing should be planted with hybrids bred for silage or grazing because they’ve been developed for high forage yields, high digestibility, low fiber levls and high fiber digestibility. In selecting a hybrid, consideration should be given to the days required for maturity, disease and insect resistance, drought tolerance and tonnage.
“You don’t see much corn grazing here,” Uhing says. “I know a few other Nebraska beef producers who do it. If corn is hail damaged, grazing is certainly an option. But I’m using it for the gains it provides and as a fallback when grasses start to die back. You can graze it and then take the cattle off it. I have a good experience with grazing it.”
Producers who do graze corn have planted it in May or early June and grazed it 70 to 90 days after planting. Corn can be grazed during a mid-summer slump when temperatures are hot and moisture is short. The late summer to early fall grazing allows producers to stockpile perennial pastures for late fall/early winter grazing.
Corn can also be grazed late in the season to provide needed energy and shelter during winter months. Plants typically lose leaves and stalks begin to break down as the seasons progress, causing a loss in digestible nutrients and protein. The remaining stalks, leaves and grain are still excellent supplemental feed for over-wintering beef cows, stockers and growing animals.
Corn is generally strip-grazed and livestock are allowed enough forage for two or three days. When fencing an area, at least two strands of electrified temporary fence is recommended to prevent cows from reaching over or through the fence and from grounding out if a corn stalk falls over the fence.
“If you plan to raise ears on the corn, you have to protect the growing point, which is three or four inches above the ground,” Uhing says. “Some of the corn will be pulled out as the cattle graze, but not enough to cause any problems if you’re letting it set ears.”
Uhing has also developed an irrigation plan for his pastures. He doesn’t consider himself an expert on the practice, but has seen other producers reap great benefits from it and has realized better gains with his cattle by placing them on irrigated pastures.
“Every year is different in terms of how much irrigation you need,” Uhing says. “I monitor the rainfall and growth of the grasses. I haven’t found any rule of thumb yet. I know beef producers who graze on a variety of grasses see much better gains than those who graze on a single species. The mix I use is three or four different grasses with a legume like alfalfa. Initially, the alfalfa will be pretty dominant, but after a few years it dies back and the grasses take over in succeeding years.”
Since he implemented his grazing system several years ago, Uhing has seen an improvement in the quality of his land. He says it takes time and patience to realize the results of efforts to produce forage and beef in a more natural way.
“It seems that there’s a symbiotic relationship between cattle and the land,” he says. “They almost add more to the land than they take off. There are so many minerals in soil and the cattle feed the biology of the soil when they graze it. Weed pressures are certainly greater in a system like this, because we don’t use any chemical weed controls. But a lot of weeds are very nutritious too.”
Uhing points to neighboring beef producer Marvin DeBlauw and Nebraska’s Knox County Extension agent Terry Gompert as valuable mentors in the journey he’s taking to produce grass-fed beef.
“They have a lot more experience with this than I do,” Uhing says. “I’ve learned a lot from what they’ve done. I don’t have all the answers that I need yet. I do know that the only thing I’m really removing from my land now is the pounds of beef I produce. There are a lot more nutrients on my land for the next crop, and it seems like this is a win-win situation for consumers and for me. They get a higher quality product and I’m preserving my land.”