North Central Research Extension Center


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Leveraging Your Summer Pasture For More Carrying Capacity April 2004

Farm operations in the Cotuea and Central region of ND are mixed with both grain farming and cow-calf operations. Cows are needed to utilize the rough non farmable land. Consolidation in the industry is pressuring cattle operations to increase herd size to dilute overhead expense and increase the farm revenues to meet their living needs with decreasing farm margins. To some extent conflicts and challenges associated with management and labor requirements, push another trend to specialization either as farmers or cattle producers.  Interest in further consolidation/expansion/specialization is limited for many by the availability of grazing land and the opportunity to carry more numbers.

One opportunity appears to be a greater integration with farming and leveraging the carrying capacity of summer pastures with grazing on farmland and greater use of alternative and opportunity feeds.

Many possibilities exist, but one approach might be to maximize the summer use of permanent native pastures by delaying turn out until June 1st and then rotating with a twice over 3 or 4 paddock management plan till early October. For a June to Oct. period, with range in good condition, such grazing management might allow a stocking rate of 1 to 1.5 acres per cow or 4 to 6 acres for 4 months.

One of the best options for earlier turn out is a complimentary tame grass pasture such as crested wheat, seeded on marginal farm land in close proximity to the operations headquarters and annually fertilized or inter seeded with alfalfa. For maximum carrying capacity such pasture should utilized with an early May turn out and grazed in allocated blocks. However a portion of this acreage might be needed for an April calving location on which cows receive supplemental feed. For best early season productivity this pasture would be only used for the 1 to 2 month spring period and rested the remainder of the year till next spring.

A number of alternatives exist for grazing the cowherd in the fall and early winter including the use of cropping residues and stockpiled annual forages. For late calving cowherds desiring to wean calves at a traditional 7 month of age, it is necessary that forage quality in the October- November period is adequate to maintain cow condition and calf grains. Swath grazing forage planted on farmland in early summer and windrowed in September as German Millet provides adequate nutrition with a carrying capacity of about 80 grazing days per acre. When forage quality is not of as great concern as after weaning, corn stover, chaff piles, and mature grass on waste areas provide a very useable feed resource. Creep feeding with reasonable priced feeds as wheat midd pellets can also be very cost effective in situations where weaning might be delayed until late November or early December and calves marketed off the cow.

The period of December through April in the northern plains/ farming region usually requires feeding cows harvested feed as hay, silage, or crop residues. The challenge is to do so at least expense while meeting the cow’s nutritional needs which increase over this period and can be influenced by cow type and date of calving. Late cut CRP hay can be a cost effective forage in spite of its low quality when a high quality forage can be produced in a farming rotation and is available as alfalfa, corn silage a cereal hay. Depending on location and feeding methods, crop processing by products, harvested stover, straw, grain screenings and damaged crops salvaged as feed can be effective wintering feeds.

Increasing herd size through leveraging a summer pasture base with forage production and crop aftermath use on farmland is only part of the equation. More cows increases facility, equipment, and labor needs. Watering, wind protection, and fencing are issues on land locations not previously used for grazing and feeding livestock. Access to non-cattle producer lands with crop aftermath resources needs to be negociated for by those with cattle. With a desire and a willingness to do things in less traditional ways, opportunities exist to grow the region’s cowherd.

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