Forage Bedrock

Grass and Hay Program Yields Top Bulls

Gary Knutson (left) and son Kyle switched their 120-head herd entirely to grass and hay in 2011. They believe the all-forage diet has improved rumen health. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Greg Latza)

When he started developing a registered Black Angus herd in 1993, Gary Knutson didn't plan to take grain out of his feed ration. It was $7 corn in 2011 that drove the South Dakota rancher to alternative feed sources.

The search for that best option left him thinking the answer might well be to stop buying grain altogether and, instead, feed the high-quality hay he was already producing. During the growing season, cattle would graze.

Knutson's main production goal was to maintain a herd that performed well on a low-carbohydrate diet, while continuing to produce high-quality seedstock bulls that have long been his primary product.

As he switched the entire 120-head herd to grass and hay in 2011, Knutson discovered several positives from challenging his herd genetics with a 100% forage diet. He was able to quickly identify those cows most efficient in feed conversion. At the end of that first year, the Volga producer says he was amazed at how well his cows fared on a 100% grass and hay diet, and the high-quality level of his bull crop.

"After we switched our bulls to a forage diet, we found they had more longevity, higher fertility and bred more cows without falling apart by the end of the breeding season," Knutson says. "Our yearling bulls are ready to breed cows and continue to grow over the summer. When customers bring bulls home in the fall, they don't have to worry about getting them in condition. They go back on hay, making the bulls really low maintenance."

To further refine herd genetics, Knutson reviewed herd EPDs (expected progeny differences) and selected for weaning weights averaging between 650 and 800 pounds, yearling weights between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds.

"Artificial insemination gives us access to the best possible genetics each year," Knutson adds. "Over the last five years, our embryo-transfer program helped us quickly build herd genetics compatible with a grass diet."

Herd genetics are critical, but it would be a mistake to overlook the high quality of this producer's South Dakota hay. During the past several years, Knutson and son Kyle developed production strategies to grow, harvest and store forage that consistently produces dairy-quality hay.

"Our alfalfa, soft-leaf fescue and tall-fescue mix is high in protein and highly digestible," Knutson says. "We also raise a fescue and orchardgrass mix. All our hay is cut prebloom and fed in long-stem form. We don't tub-grind because the long stem keeps enough 'scratch' on the cattles' rumen that the rumen stays healthy. Our hay mix is so palatable the cattle waste very little."

The "scratch factor" is in reference to fiber, which is necessary to maintain a healthy rumen. Microbes in the rumen are capable of utilizing fiber, providing energy. Fine-grinding forage may reduce the effect of fiber in the rumen.

In an average year, Volga produces 1,200 to 1,500 1-ton bales off of his 300 acres. That hay's Relative Feed Value ranges from 160 to 200. Crude protein (CP) levels are usually 16 to 22%.

To ensure harvested hay remains high quality from harvest to feedbunk, the Knutsons use a carefully selected mix of equipment that puts hay down quickly. They bale as soon as possible.

A Massey Ferguson Hesston windrower can cut up to 100 acres per day. It crimps stems every 1.5 inches, squeezing out moisture but not breaking forage ends, which would allow dew to penetrate the stems. A Claas rotary rake handles heavier forage windrows in the first couple of cuttings, and a v-rake manages lighter cuttings later in the year. Two John Deere balers, a 568 and 569, help to quickly net-wrap bales weighing between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds.

Bales are stored in two ClearSpan fabric structures. These provide a combined 16,000 square feet of space, with ample height for loading and unloading hay. The cement floor buildings are sturdy enough to withstand high wind and the sometimes severe South Dakota winters. Natural daytime light filters into the low-maintenance buildings.

During the growing season, usually May through mid-October, Knutson's cattle are out on pasture. Come fall weaning, calves and cattle are brought into a dry lot with free access to hay and a mineral supplement.

"One of the biggest things we've noticed with the all-forage diet is cow contentment," Knutson says. "Part of that is due to long forage particles that float in the rumen and result in rumen fill."

An unexpected benefit of the forage diet has been the rumen health gained by not switching cattle back and forth from grass to grain. Alvaro Garcia, South Dakota State Agriculture and Natural Resources Program director, says digesting grain requires a shift in the species of rumen microbes from forage-digesting to grain-digesting types.

"If cattle eat both grass and grain, grain-digestive microbes increase in the rumen relative to an all-grass diet, and less of the grass hay or silage fed with grain is digested," Garcia explains. "Forage particles fed with grain create a fiber mat that tends to slow down passage of the grain in the digestive tract long enough to extract the grain's nutrients before it's expelled. If forage particles are too small, it has little effect in the digestive tract."


Knutson believes one other key piece in his forage system is his commitment to Angus genetics. Garcia agrees the breed has long been recognized as having adaptable qualities when it comes to diet.

"The Angus breed does well here in South Dakota," Garcia says. "There may be other breeds, such as Shorthorns or Simmental, that produce more milk and, as a result, raise a heavier calf, but those breeds also have higher energy requirements. The key to making a forage diet work is continually monitoring the animals that don't adapt as well and taking them out of the program."

Garcia also advises using mature cows to help train younger cows to locate the best quality forage in a pasture. Studies show cows have to learn how to locate high-quality forage patches in the field. With the aid of older animals, it lowers the learning curve and increases performance.

"Producers adopting a forage-only diet would also want to make sure their geographic location and environment doesn't pose overwhelming challenges to the cattle," Garcia says. "Cattle in pasture over winter require a lot of energy to maintain body heat. Use of windbreaks and shelter from weather extremes would be important to the success of the program."

Garcia notes forage falling below 12 or 10% CP will have significantly reduced digestibility. In that case, cattle would require a protein supplement to maintain body condition. And a mineral supplement is just a given, he adds. "We have numerous mineral deficiencies in our state, especially salt."

The Knutsons' success with a forage-fed program is something they expect to continue and refine. They believe the key for the industry is for everyone to have options.

"Our success with a forage diet doesn't mean seedstock or commercial calf producers feeding grain can't have quality beef animals," Knutson stresses.

"This program fits our resources and our goal to give customers animals that perform efficiently in the pasture and produce heavy carcasses at the packer. We feel as good as ever about being involved in the ag industry with the production changes we've made."

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