Conventional wisdom, not to mention research, says stockers don't perform on Kentucky 31 fescue. The toxins produced by the forage keep young cattle from gaining enough to be profitable. Bob and Butch Foster disagree. The father-and-son team regularly put 200 to 250 pounds on calves in three to four months. And they do it largely on Kentucky 31.
"Grass is the best feed there is," Bob says. "That's what puts weight on cattle." Granted, their pastures also include clover, bluegrass and orchardgrass. They don't supplement with grain at all, except when they use a bucket of it to move the cattle.
The Abingdon, Va., duo's focus on forages starts in the fall with a soil test,done every other year. They apply lime, potash and phosphorus as needed, with a goal of getting soil pH to a 5.5 or a 6.0. A typical application is about 2 tons of lime per acre and 50 to 75 pounds of potassium and phosphate. The local co-op spreads them with a truck. Because they have clover, they don't have to apply nitrogen.
In February, the Fosters broadcast white clover at a rate of 2 pounds per acre over pastures. First, they make sure existing forage is eaten down close to the ground. This gives the clover a chance to compete. If needed, the duo even lets their neighbor graze his cows to remove extra growth.
University of Arkansas beef Extension specialist Paul Beck says clover is a key ingredient in getting satisfactory gains off fescue pastures. "It gives the cattle something else to eat that dilutes out the toxins," he explains.
He says clover does more than provide a dilution effect. In Arkansas trials, when clover was added to toxic fescue pastures, they got a half-pound increase in stocker average daily gains compared to gains on straight toxic fescue pastures. However, Beck says when they interseeded clover in nontoxic fescue, they still got a half-pound advantage over straight nontoxic fescue.
"My feeling is the clover adds diet quality, more protein and energy," he says.
Stockers and Spring Fescue. The Fosters work hard to have everything ready for stockers by the end of March. That's when they bring in the cattle, timing the delivery to match spring growth spurts in their pastures. Conservative stocking rates along with their forage-management program let them graze five-and-a-half semi-loads of calves at a time.
On their home farm, which is around 80 acres of open pasture and 40 acres of woods, they graze calves weighing between 650 and 750 pounds at a stocking rate of around two calves per acre. On their rental ground, which is 350 to 400 acres and not as productive, they stock at a lighter rate of one calf to the acre.
While the Fosters don't supplement with grain, they do keep a high-quality mineral out containing either Rumensin or Bovatec. They switch to a mineral containing a feed-through fly-control product when flies start appearing.
Arkansas' Beck says including minerals is another component in good daily gains. He says research shows with stocker cattle grazing wheat pasture, minerals improved average daily gains by 0.25 pounds compared to white salt. Cattle need calcium and phosphorus, and fescue is known to bind up copper and other trace minerals, he explains.
As far as the addition of an ionophore to the minerals, Beck says animals on toxic fescue respond to implants and ionophores in the same way they do on nontoxic fescue.
To keep fescue as productive as possible, the Fosters clip it in mid- to late May before it goes to seed. "Otherwise, you'll get toxicity," Butch says. "The cattle won't eat it. You have a whole lot of nothing."
Auburn University Extension animal scientist Kim Mullenix agrees with that practice. She says the seed heads are where the majority of the toxins are produced.
While the Fosters prefer not to rotate pastures, Mullenix says that is another way to manage fescue toxicity. "A moderate rotation is best, one with three or four paddocks," she says. "Rotate fairly regularly to keep the fescue in a vegetative state to prevent it from forming seed heads."
One decision the Fosters have made that likely costs them a few pounds is the decision not to implant their cattle. This is strictly in response to buyer preference.
"We found out a lot of buyers don't want them implanted," Butch says. "They jump [in weight] when they are implanted, and the man on the other end needs to make money."
Three Hundred Pounds Later
By mid-July, the Fosters are shipping out the calves, now weighing around 900 to 950 pounds. This timing is tied to their goal of managing fescue toxicity, because as the season progresses, and the forage is potentially more toxic, it can make it more difficult for cattle to manage heat. Plus, since fescue, bluegrass and orchardgrass are all cool-season perennials, they tend to go dormant by then.
"The calves have done 85 to 90% of what they're going to do unless we keep them until October," Butch says. He adds that the family starts out with bigger cattle because they perform better on fescue.
The Fosters let pastures rest for a month or so before beginning the whole process over again in mid-August with more 650- to 750-pound calves. They'll sell these in mid-November, at about 850 pounds, when the fall flush of fescue is over.
Despite the bad reputation of fescue, Butch says the way he sees it, his family is making a business out of selling it as pounds of beef. And it's working out well, thanks to good management tactics.
"We sell grass, and this grass is a pretty valuable product," says Butch, adding that when the market was at its peak, he and his dad saw $2 for every pound they put on a calf.
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