Pasture or drylot: Is there something in between?
By Will Walter
Mitchell Technical Institute
I have been fortunate to sit in on a focus group the past 18 months discussing some alternatives for "summering" beef cows. In recent years with the profitability of grain crops, we have seen more land being converted from traditional pasture to grain production. With less pasture available on the market, beef cow producers have had to look at some alternatives for providing forage to their cow/calf pairs.
The words, "we'll just have to drylot them," come up with an apprehensive voice. Drylot is hard to define in my thesaurus, but synonyms such as "parched group" or even a "desiccated fate" appear in the listing. This seems a bit harsh, as dry lots seem favorable during some of the wet springs and corresponding muddy pens we've had in recent years. I'm sure you would agree that in the livestock business, drylot is referred to as animals being cared for in a designated area with their feed delivered to them.
Our group has listened to presenters with experiences incorporating the following diversifications: 1) Year-round confined pen housing; 2) Cows confined with a grass creep or "romping" area for the calves; 3) Rotational grazing systems; 4) Grazing of winter cereal grains, summer annual forage crops, cover crops, and extensive stover grazing; 5) Changing calving periods to match available feed sources and availability; and 6) Combinations of all with a short window of pasture grazing.
One may think, "how can we afford to feed them in the lot?" Another question is, "if you could find pasture available, what would it cost?" I'll throw out a few numbers: $70/acre pasture requiring 4 acres/cow equals $280/cow for 150 days of grazing equals $1.86/day. I'm not a nutritionist to balance what you have available, but let's assume a bunk ration is an equal cost, or likely could be less. Yes, you have to mix and deliver the feed, but you also have to haul cattle to that pasture, and maintain fence, and manage their wellbeing likely from a distance. Dust is a concern, but health issues can also be identified and treated sooner than what can happen in a range setting if a cow goes lame or develops pinkeye, etc. I could go on with many pros and cons, but my point is there are many options to consider maintaining or establishing your cow herd numbers if faced with reduced pasture acres.
As we look at ways for new producers to get a start in the beef cow business with little availability of pasture and also minimizing capital expenditures, alternative production systems likely to be considered. Corn stover has become somewhat of a base for many rations. There is indifference among producers as to the fertilizer value of "excessive" crop residue, possible soil damage/benefits from grazing cows, fencing, water, etc. Communication and some give and take can go a long way in developing working relationships. A common scenario now may be a parcel of pasture you've rented for years has been sold and broken up. Instead of being bitter about it, is there a chance you could run a grain cart, or haul some grain at a crucial point in harvest for this person, and in return they might be open to consider negotiating grazing of the stover?
This may lead to putting up hay in marginal areas, etc. You never know unless you inquire. Yes, you may have to haul water or string some fence -- maybe offer to mow their road ditch. Swallow your pride; this is your "off-farm job" that allows flexibility. As with any business, you must capitalize on the resources you have available. If yours is energy, ambition and a will to build and maintain a beef cow herd, put those tools to work. Bear in mind with much lower profit margins likely on the crop side, this may be received in a more favorable way than past years.
Knowing your costs is crucial to any of these scenarios. To help with these and other items of farm management, consider enrolling in our program. You can view our website at www.sdcfrm.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (605) 770-0758.