Ivan Rush: Reducing winter feed costs with corn stalk grazing
In my last column, I discussed the concern for ever increasing costs and indicated that harvested feed still accounts for one of the major costs of producing a calf. We were blessed with considerable and timely spring and early-summer rains, but then it stopped in a lot of the High Plains area; thus very little green-up has occurred with the cool season grasses in the fall. Because of the fast, early growth this year, indications are that the grass quality is lower than normal. The lower quality dormant forage, coupled with lack of green regrowth this fall, indicates that protein supplementation may be needed earlier this fall in comparison to previous years.
Questions on economical ways to winter cows continue. Those that have winter range will only need to make decisions on protein and energy supplementation. Many rely on crop aftermath grazing. Grazing crop residues remains one of the most economical winter feed resources for many cow-calf producers. For some, distance and/or availability limits its use.
Many crop residues such as wheat stubble and sunflower fields offer some benefit, but still the major feed resource is corn stalks. Fortunately, the fall has been great for fall harvesting so corn fields are becoming available relatively soon this year. Many ranchers rely on winter grazing, and thus it appears plenty of stalks will be available.
There are a few farmers that do not rent stalks for grazing because of the belief that grazing stalks decreases yields the succeeding year. I am not aware of any documentation of this. In controlled research studies conducted in Eastern Nebraska, where rain fall is higher and the soil has a higher clay content compared to the High Plains, grazing had no detrimental effects on next year’s crop yields. In fact some farmers who utilize minimum crop tillage prefer to have stalks grazed to reduce the level of trash they have to deal with when planting the following spring.
Some have questioned the amount of nutrients removed from the field by grazing the residue. Most of the nutrients are returned to the field in via manure and urine. As you think about it, the only nutrients that leave the field is the increase in fetal gain and perhaps a little body weight gain of the cow. When I calculate the nutrients removed in the fetus it accounts for a few cents per acre.
I realize we write about stalk grazing each year so the following will be old hat for many. Still it seems each year we get calls concerning how many acres will be needed for a cow herd. In cases where not enough land is committed, we tend to overgraze and often lose cow condition.
For many, the largest concern is relying on others to care for cows on stalks. It seems when “wrecks” occur, its because of a lack of communication, or at least mis-understanding of cow management. Ranchers who place cows with farmers for the winter should ask what guidelines they use for making grazing decisions. Determine detailed plans for cow care, supplemental feed and payment for that feed especially in cases of extreme snowfall.
As a general rule, one acre of stalks is adequate grazing for one mature cow for about 45 days. This number will vary with the amount of corn left in the field, amount of other grazing available (such as ditch banks), plus ground conditions (such as muddy conditions). Research at UNL has shown that corn with higher yields will support more grazing days.
The need and level of supplement while on stalks continues to be debated. Unfortunately controlled research data with mature cows in this area is limited. Some factors to consider when deciding to supplement: condition of the cows entering stalks; the need to gain weight; the age of the cow; the amount of corn left in the field; and the cost of the supplement delivered to the cows.
In general there is agreement that protein supplements will improve cow performance, especially if very little corn is available in the field. However the greater question is the economic return. In general, calculations indicate a mature cow needs between 0.2 to 0.4 pounds of supplemental crude protein per head, per day, for good performance. In other words, 1-2 pounds of a 20 percent protein would meet, and perhaps exceed, the cow’s need and provide some weight gain.
Supplements can be feed daily, or the equivalent daily amounts 2-3 times per week. Supplements vary considerably in price, which may be based on quality and labor requirements to feed. Alfalfa is often the least cost per unit of protein, however it is usually the highest labor to deliver and some waste should be expected.
Hope you have had good results in weaning this year. Remember to order your prime rib for Thanksgiving.