Return on Grass

Intensive Grazing Boosts Gains and Builds a New Market

Mike Jones divides pastures into quarter-acre paddocks, using single-strand polywire fencing. Cattle are moved once or twice a day. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Mike Jones)

It's feeding time at Beaver Creek Farm, in Surry County, North Carolina. While other farmers are hauling bales of hay to their cattle, Mike and Jean Jones stroll through their pastures like pied pipers leading cows to fresh grass.

The two run 46 head of cows and calves on the farm's 215 acres in the foothills of the state's scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. The family farm shows that concern for the environment and a profitable beef operation can go hand in hand. But the profit outlook wasn't always rosy at Beaver Creek Farm. "Ten years ago, we raised beef cattle the same way as everyone else in our area, but it wasn't working," Jones admitted.

He is referring to the traditional pattern of running cows and calves on pastures during the summer, and feeding hay from December through March. The cost of hay for Jones was $132 per cow, the largest single expense in his cow/calf budget.

Each cow required 1.1 tons of hay for winter, and Jones estimated his cost of harvesting mixed-grass hay at $120 per ton. Because frequent rains damaged hay quality during harvest, Jones said nutritional value of the feed he put up often wasn't as good as he would have liked. With a goal to gain more control over forages and cost of production, Jones sold his hay equipment for $7,300 and turned Beaver Creek Farm into a year-round grazing operation.

BCK TO SQUARE ONE

After deciding changes were necessary, the Joneses attended all the beef cattle workshops they could. Mike said they learned a lot from experts with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and North Carolina State University's Matt Poore.

The first conservation project at Beaver Creek Farm included fencing cattle out of streams and installing pasture livestock drinkers. Since 2015, livestock have been excluded from over two miles of streams and the river. Thanks to fencing and stream-restoration work to stabilize the banks (provided by North Carolina's Ecosystem Enhancement Program), native plants and trees are re-establishing vegetation on the stream banks. Livestock waste is excluded from the streams and is distributed across pastures.

Fencing cattle out of streams has saved money by improving animal health. When the cows spent hours standing in streams, they occasionally developed sore feet and abscesses. Treating lame cows with antibiotics cost $20 per head and, in some cases, an additional $200 to call a veterinarian to the farm.

"We should have fenced the cattle out of streams sooner. The stream banks were eroded, the water was muddy and our cows had feet problems from standing in water. Now, nature is taking its course, and the stream banks have healed," Jones said.

WATER EVERYWHERE

Numerous water sites play a key role in Jones' rotational-grazing program. On summer days, cows and bulls need 15 to 20 gallons of water per head each day. If they must walk long distances between water points, cattle will overgraze the areas near the water and let forage go to waste farther away.

"We started by installing six permanent drinkers scattered around our pastures. In 2011, we sold our hay equipment and invested the money in additional drinkers. Now, we have 22 drinkers, and we use temporary fences to set up our pastures in almost any configuration," Jones said.

Each drinker installation costs approximately $1,100. The cost includes $600 for the drinker, $200 for gravel and $300 for a concrete pad with an underground water line and valves. This work was done with financial assistance from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

"Our cows have a great life here. They have plenty of grass and usually don't walk more than 300 yards for a drink of clean water," Jones said.

WARM-WEATHER GRAZING

Twenty-three acres of native warm-season grasses (big bluestem, indiangrass and gamagrass) are now part of the farm, providing high-quality summer grazing. This also helps balance out any negative effects from cool-season fescue, a common forage in foothills pastures.

Fescue grows slowly in hot weather, and the original variety (KY-31) has a toxic endophyte that in high enough levels can cause elevated body temperatures. Jones is also adding novel endophyte fescue (BarOptima PLUS E34) with a beneficial endophyte (E34) that protects the fescue plant from drought and pests and is not toxic to livestock.

As icing on the cake, the producer planted 26 acres of Ray's Crazy Mix. This warm-season seed mix is made up of cowpea, sorghum sudan, pearl millet, radish, forage brassica and sunflower. In addition to excellent grazing, Ray's Crazy Mix is a soil-building crop that helps renovate depleted soils. Jones uses Ray's Crazy Mix as a transition crop when he renovates fields out of toxic fescue.

To make the most efficient use of forage, Jones divides pastures into small quarter-acre paddocks using single-strand polywire fences. He moves cattle once or twice a day so the animals are grazing fresh, young grass continuously. Where calves previously gained 1.25 pounds a day, they now gain 1.75 pounds a day through intensive grazing.

GRASS-FED BEEF

There has been a side benefit in all the pasture-management work. In 2009, Jones learned his cattle qualified as grass-fed beef. He started developing a local market and now sells homegrown grass-fed beef. Calves that would sell for $1,600 per head at the sale barn are now worth $2,200 per head as grass-fed beef for local customers. Jones sells 10 to 15 animals a year.

(VM/CZ)