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Managing Pastures for the Stocker Operation

Authors as Published

Dr. Mark A. McCann, Extension Animal Scientist, VA Tech

Effective and efficient use of grazed forages is the foundation of many stocker operations.  In the foot hills and mountains of the Mid-Atlantic that usually translates into a tall fescue based program.  Many variables influence the profitability of these grazing programs, some are related to the forage program and others are outside the forage area such as health and marketing which play large roles in determining success.  I will focus my comments to those variables and decisions related to forage programs and their impact on cattle performance and potential profitability.

When envisioning forage goals for stocker performance; keep in mind the fundamental relationship which will drive grazing animal growth is the total amount of nutrient intake (TDN, NEg, CP).

Nutrient intake= (Amount of forage consumed) X (Nutrient content)

Also realize that a fundamental principle of forage growth is as the age of the plant increases, quantity usually increases and nutrient content declines.  Changes in forage quality have additional impact on total nutrient intake beyond the nutrient content of the forage.  As intake of more mature forage occurs it has a higher content of cell walls and less cell contents.  The cell walls are less digestible and have a longer retention time in the rumen.  Therefore, the calf feels full and will consume less forage.  The net effect will be the combination of slightly less forage consumed which has a lower nutrient content.

As cattle performance plans or goals are formulated, estimates or expectations of cattle gain are a key piece of the puzzle.  Nutrient requirements of growing calves (Table 1) increase with higher levels of daily gain or as it occurs in the practical world, stocker calves will achieve greater levels of growth with consumption of higher quality forage, as long as forage amount is not limiting.  From a grazing management perspective one of the challenges is to manage forage resources in way that maintains vegetative growth and manages the maturation of the cool season perennial grasses. From a stocker budget perspective, inexpensive cost of gain is critical to profitability.

Table 1.  Nutrient Requirements of Growing Steer and Heifer Calves1,2
Wt., lb

Daily gain, lb/d

DM intake, lb/d

TDN intake, lb/d

TDN, %

CP intake, lb/d

CP, %

300

0.5

7.8

4.2

54

.73

9.4

 

1.0

8.3

4.8

58

.95

11.5

 

1.5

8.6

5.4

63

1.17

13.7

 

2.0

8.6

5.8

68

1.40

16.2

 

2.5

8.6

6.3

73

1.61

18.7

400

0.5

9.7

5.2

54

.85

8.8

 

1.0

10.3

6.0

58

1.07

10.4

 

1.5

10.6

6.7

63

1.30

12.2

 

2.0

10.7

7.3

68

1.51

14.1

 

2.5

10.7

7.8

73

1.72

16.1

500

0.5

11.5

6.2

54

.97

8.4

 

1.0

12.2

7.1

58

1.19

9.8

 

1.5

12.6

7.9

63

1.41

11.2

 

2.0

12.6

8.6

68

1.63

12.9

 

2.5

12.6

9.2

73

1.84

14.6

600

0.5

13.2

7.1

54

1.08

8.2

 

1.0

14.0

8.1

58

1.31

9.3

 

1.5

14.4

9.1

63

1.52

10.6

 

2.0

14.4

9.8

68

1.74

12.1

 

2.5

14.4

10.5

73

1.95

13.5

700

0.5

14.8

8.0

54

1.18

8.0

 

1.0

15.7

9.1

58

1.42

9.0

 

1.5

16.2

10.2

63

1.64

10.1

 

2.0

16.3

11.1

68

1.85

11.3

 

2.5

16.2

11.8

73

2.05

12.7

1 1,200 lb at finishing 
2 Adapted from 2000 NRC Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle

 

If we apply the previously discussed principles of forage quality and intake in an example:

    Situation spring forage TDN = 70% and 400 lb calves consuming 2.5% of BW in DM
    2.5% x 400 =10 lb DM/d x 70% = 7 lb TDN/d (1.75 lb/d expected gain from table)

    Situation summer forage TDN = 62% same calves consuming 2.2% of BW in DM
    2.2% x 400 = 8.8 lb DM/d x 62% = 5.5 lb TDN/d (.75 lb/d expected gain from table)

Although this is an example, the principles and results demonstrate what happens during the course of a grazing season.  When forage quality is marginal, one method of assisting animal performance is providing additional grazing area which will allow greater animal selectivity.  The following table (Hammond et al, 1970) indicates the impact of differing forage availability on steer daily gain.  As standing forage and the calf’s ability to select their diet declined, so did their performance.

Table 2. Impact of Grazing Pressure and Management on Steers Grazing Orchardgrass Pastures
 

Grazing Pressure

 

Light

Medium

Heavy

Continuous

 

 

 

Available forage, lbs DM/ac

1200-1600

600-1200

200-500

Grass height, in

4-6

3-5

2-3

ADG, lb/d

1.5

1.2

.73

Rotational

 

 

 

Available forage

1200-1800

600-1200

200-600

Grass height

4-6

3-5

2-3

ADG

1.5

1.1

.81

Management Tips for Stocker Forage Systems

  1. In spring-summer systems, control and take advantage of the spring forage growth through additional grazers or harvest as hay.  Forage nutrient composition will be at its best during this time.  Wintered yearlings are well positioned to keep up with and take advantage of this extra forage production.  Spring purchased calves are not as capable to keep up with the spring growth and management plans need to address methods (haying, etc) to manage extra forage.  Stocking spring calves heavier will reduce waste during the rapid growth phase but can leave pastures overstocked in the summer months unless there is additional pasture available.  Rotational grazing can be used to manage the maturity of this extra growth.
  2. Maintain legumes in grass stands.  Clovers are the most economical way to add N back to grass pastures.  They have the additional benefit of holding their nutritional quality longer than grasses and particularly red clover has the ability to make valuable contributions to available forage during the hot months of the summer.  Although Dutch clover is the easiest to manage and most prevalent of the white clovers, it also makes the smallest dry matter contribution.  Ladino clover will generally produce the most forage; however, it is also the shortest lived as compared to Dutch and Intermediate clovers.  Ladino and red clovers will generally need to be frost seeded every 2-3 years to supply a significant component of the animal’s diet.  Be aware that stockpiling tall fescue is stressful for clover stands.  Areas where the clover stand is poorest are the best choices for stockpiling.  Close strip grazing of the stockpiled area will have it prepared for next winter’s frost seeding of clovers.
  3. Stocking rate is the most common problem in dealing with sub par grazing performance of stockers.  Just as it is critical in marketing programs to work in load lots; it is equally critical to stock pastures appropriately.  Lighter stocking rates with more available forage usually will allow for greater individual animal performance and also allow some reserve for dry periods.  Stocking at rates that worked well during wet years will simply result in overgrazing during drier years.  Remember the impact of grazing pressure on available forage quality as well as quantity.  By-products, hay or silage can be supplemented to have a sparing effect on pasture forage.
  4. Stockpiling tall fescue beginning in August can greatly reduce or eliminate hay needs. The negative impact of infected fescue is greatly reduced during the fall and winter months.  Additionally, stockpiled fescue will maintain its nutrient content into the winter. Lighter weight stockers will respond to low levels of energy and protein supplementation after the top portion of stockpiled fescue has been grazed.
  5. The addition of an ionophore will still enhance efficiency and profitability in grazing programs and should not be overlooked.  Most products can be fed in a supplement, mineral mix or in a molasses block. Results are dependent on consumption of the product at recommended levels so free choice sources such as mineral and blocks need to be monitored.

Stocker enterprises are characterized by risk and margins some of which can be managed in marketing and herd health programs.  Forage programs, while less predictable, can also be managed in a way to be more dependable through management of resources, selection of varieties and grazing management.  The one ingredient which cannot be predicted but must be managed around is rainfall.  By being somewhat conservative and following best management practices, the chances for satisfactory pasture and cattle performance is enhanced.

Rights


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Publisher

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.

Date

September 1, 2010


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