For Release February 19, 2002

Match Your Livestock to Your Forages

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Iíve had the opportunity, in recent months, to listen to several outstanding speakers discussing pastures, forage resources and livestock. While all of these speakers have come from different backgrounds, locations and disciplines, what they have all had to say has meshed very nicely. What they all have to say, also has a lot to say about some of the problems that we are currently facing with our pastures here in the northern Flint Hills.

What I want you to do is to think about how you manage your pastures and your cattle. Specifically, I want you to think very carefully about the subtleties of the following question. Do you try to manage the forage to meet the needs of your cattle, or do you try to manage the cattle to meet the forage resources available? There is a big difference between these two. For the most part, I think we have historically tried to manage the forage to meet the cattle.

If you are a pasture owner who leases the pasture out, I also have a question for you. Do you set up your leases to maximize the care of the grass and long term productivity, or do you set up your leases to maximize your per acre income? I would really like to see more pasture landlords rent by the head rather than by the acre and then increase the number or acres per head or pair. This will help reduce some of the grass mining that has occurred over the past couple of decades.

It is easier to match the cattle to the forage resources available rather than match the forage to the cattle. We canít do much about the weather. We have a limit in what forages we can produce. In most years, the production of any pasture in any condition is fairly predictable. Several years of extreme weather conditions will certainly change that production, but within predictable limits. But I think we find ourselves all too often think about how many head of cattle we have before we think about forage resources available.

What this management style can create is a cow herd manager scrambling to grow or buy enough food to keep the herd going. We start grasping at straws and buying over priced or under quality feed to try to make ends meet. Then costs of production start going up and profit margins get thinner or disappear and then we try to increase herd size to make up the difference. It can create quite a vicious circle.

If we are truly trying to match our livestock to the forage resources available then there is a question that is begging to be asked. That question will tread on sacred ground, go against tradition and even flare in the face of a lot of beef cow research. Are we calving at the right time of year? If you look at when the forage resources are available and when the highest nutritional needs of the pregnant or nursing cow occur, we are honestly quite a bit out of sync.

Most cow herds are calving mid January to mid March. Maximum nutritional needs for that cow are going to occur shortly after calving. Native grass isnít really available until early May and maximum forage quality and production in our native pastures occurs in late May and June. We know that the more feed that has to be taken to the animal the more it costs and the less money we make. But if we move calving 60 days later, it would mean a big shift in the entire herd management.

There are honestly a lot of questions that still need answers. Each producer has to develop their own questions and discover their own answers. We can help discover those answers, but it first starts with a lot of serious questions!


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