No matter what day of the year it happens to be in southern Illinois, Cliff Schuette can always look out his door and see his Simmental-Angus cow herd grazing. It's by design.
The Breese, Illinois, producer created a system of forages that can grow or be stockpiled to feed his fall-calving herd 365 days a year. "The system takes a lot of management and a willingness to think six to 10 months ahead. This is not an April-to-November process," he said. "We work on Mother Nature's schedule, but it pays off."
Schuette doesn't work alone. His son, Evan, helps keep the program working across the 100 acres they cash rent. Of that acreage, 85 acres are pastures; 15 acres are planted in summer annuals. It's more than enough for their 50-head herd.
A FORAGE MEDLEY
Schuette is a seed dealer for Pennington and Ampac, and a district sales manager with Stine Seed. His experience in the seed business has given him a unique position to be able to learn about and experiment with a variety of forage options. His goal was to find the optimal year-round mix for his area and operation. That mix includes fescue, chicory, clovers, oats, turnips, tillage radishes, rye, pearl millet, sudangrass, annual ryegrass, cornstalks and crabgrass. His main pastures are Kentucky 31, with clovers added to help dilute the toxic effects of the fescue.
"I spent several years learning the potential of various forages and then matching them to the right time of year for grazing. These all have a place in the forage chain," he said. "The key is the fescue. Grass holds feed quality through the winter."
Schuette no-tills rye and ryegrass during September. The rye is seeded at a rate of 100 pounds per acre, the ryegrass at 30 pounds. They are usually planted in separate paddocks and fertilized with 50 units of nitrogen per acre. Paddocks range in size from 1 to 8 acres.
The grasses grow through most of the winter and into spring, providing a feed source for cows until about May 1. Cows are then allowed into pasture paddocks to graze fescue, clover and chicory.
"The mix is good because the chicory taproot pulls up minerals. It is like candy to the cows," he said. "In summer, the fescue and clover go dormant. We move the herd to summer annuals in July. Cows like to graze hybrid pearl millet and turnips in August and September. We let them eat it down or trample it. We do not mechanically harvest any acres at all."
Cows have traditionally been fed through rotational grazing, but Schuette is moving toward all mob grazing. He has a system of small paddocks set up across pastures, separated with high-tensile hot wires. He and Evan roll up braided polywire every day to move cattle from one paddock to the next.
Schuette explained that as cows quickly graze the tops of plants, they trample leftovers and stalks into the ground. This is good for his pastures.
"The process keeps the ground covered, is good for earthworms and attracts the right insects," he said. "It is a change in thinking that works for us."
One 5-acre paddock is sacrificed for wet springs and winters, seeded with summer annuals and then reseeded in September to improved, permanent grasses. Schuette tests forage quality almost every month and consistently finds nutrient levels above what the animals require. He monitors manure samples monthly as an aid in determining the best time to move cows. He says percent of protein in the manure is what he watches, and this can range from 8% to 30% protein depending on the forage eaten.
While Schuette sees mob grazing as a way to cut feed costs, he does still buy some hay to "fill in the gaps." On average, he buys 800 to 900 pounds of hay per cow per year. But he said he does not buy protein and added the hay brings more nutrients onto the farm.
While Schuette admits it takes time to transition to full-time forage, he finds the effort enhances profitability and performance.
"You won't get cows eating all forages overnight. But once you do, it lowers feed costs," he said. "We have seen a profit every year, even at low points in the price cycle."
Part of Schuette's success goes to his choice of cattle. He seeks moderate-framed, 50% to 100% British breeds, uses natural Angus sires on cows, and artificially inseminates heifers with Angus bulls. Cows are bred in December and January. Calves are given first shots around May 1 and stay with their dams until June 1, when a second round of shots are given. At that point, the calves are fenceline weaned on green paddocks. The bawling is over in two or three days.
Calves remain on pasture until July. Some are sold to capture seasonal price upticks. Others go to a local feedlot to start on corn. Replacement heifers and calves fed for natural and grass-fed beef markets stay on grass. Gains range from about 1 pound a day on the Kentucky 31 to as much as 2.5 pounds per day on annuals.
Schuette markets corn-fed, natural and grass-fed beef. He gets a per-head premium that ranges from $50 to $500 by selling freezer beef through local grocery stores owned by his cousin. He collects carcass data and consumer feedback to make improvements.
"Give customers what they want. That's what this is all about," he said. "We have a system that makes beef production profitable, fun and sustainable."
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