WASHINGTON, March 16, 2016 - An array of cost savings and market premiums are enticing American cattle ranches and dairy farms to extend their grazing seasons by a month or two, or even to graze year round.

“The biggest carrot has been the premiums,” said Joel McNair, who publishes Graze magazine in Belleville, Wisconsin. He says most of the Upper Midwest has too many ice- and snow-covered months for year-round pasturing, especially with dairy cows, which need robust feed while lactating. But, he says, a lot of small farmers are finding ways to keep cattle on pasture or hay all year round, so they can directly market “grass-fed” beef themselves or sell cattle to branded beef packers or small cooperatives. USDA says carcasses of most grass-fed steers and heifers have been fetching $270-$350 a hundredweight, versus about $205 for conventionally fed cattle.

The soaring demand for “grass-fed” labels on meat choices serves as a handmaiden to expanding grazing. The growing U.S. bison herd, for example, lives exclusively on forage, or nearly so. Sheep are also natural grazers. “It’s easy with lambs,” said Peter Orwick, American Sheep Industry Association executive director. While grain is part of many lamb-fattening diets in feedlots, lambs thrive naturally on forage, he said, and a lot of producers are pocketing premium prices by simply eschewing grain for their lambs.

Allen R. Williams, an industry consultant in Mississippi, says grass-fed-labeled beef reached 7.2 percent of American beef consumption in 2015. But almost all is imported. The 225,000 head of grass-fed cattle slaughtered in the U.S. in 2015 represents just 0.8 percent of domestic slaughter, he says. Still, the number of operations touting grass-fed herds has zoomed from a handful about two decades ago to 3,700 today, he estimates.

Meanwhile, Nathan Weaver, a small dairy farmer in Canastota, New York, is pocketing $5-$6 per hundredweight premium from Organic Valley for milk. That comes after nearly 10 years of building pasture soil fertility, reforming his forage program and adopting smaller-cow genetics (a blend of Jersey, Milking Shorthorn and Dutch Belted) to fit his forage-only operation. Now, when he tallies up his no-grain cost savings and adds his milk check premium, “I think we are as profitable, or more profitable, than if we were feeding grain,” he says.

Livestock experts recognize the challenges to total-forage dairying. Marilyn Noble, communications manager for the American Grassfed Association, says AGA, which audits and certifies all-forage livestock operations, will soon post a new, more attainable set of standards for grass-fed dairy standards.

Many cattle operations in northern states join the country’s shift toward forage diets, in part, by what is called bale grazing. It involves building soil fertility and forage productivity in pastures and hay fields to accommodate extra weeks of grazing, but then also harvesting bales that can be hauled to cattle in winter pastures.

Nationwide, says Jim Gerrish, forage and grazing consultant who runs American GrazingLands Services, says most grazing season expansions are happening in latitudes more friendly to year-round grazing. He does workshops and coaches farmers and ranchers on forage systems nationally, and he sees most of the new attention to improvements in grazing techniques “South of I-80 and north of I-20,” a band south of the Great Lakes and north of cities such as Jackson, Mississippi, and Dallas.

Gerrish says he has helped even northern ranches that have historically fed hay for five months of the year reduce hay feeding to just 45 to 60 days in an average winter. However, he suggests the first change for northern ranchers wanting to trim winter hay demands is to switch calving from February or March into May, when pastures are again flourishing. “That will dramatically decrease the cow’s feed requirements because she won’t be lactating or carrying a calf in winter months,” he points out. (New York dairy farmer Weaver does just that, drying up all cows in mid-February, ahead of May calving.)

Plus, Gerrish suggests selecting replacement cows that will weigh a modest 1,100 to 1,200 pounds at maturity will slash winter feeding costs as well.

While Gerrish guesses that a third to a half of participants in his grazing management workshops and meetings are either total grass-fed operators or aspiring in that direction, a majority are pursuing the bevy of cost savings and improved soil health that come with an expanded forage program.

Indeed, Gerrish’s writings about “kicking the hay habit” and his workshops focus on letting animals, rather than equipment, harvest the forage. “Most farmers have historically managed their fields at a higher level than they have their pastures,” he says, so ramping up a forage program starts with fresh efforts to build healthier soil. Assuming a good forage program, he says, “I’d expect grazing costs to be 30 to 40 percent of the costs of feeding hay,” at least in the country’s mid-latitudes. And farmers in the North, he expects, can cut forage costs by at least a third in the long term by improved pasture management and extending the grazing season. That assumption might not hold, he notes, in years when hay is especially plentiful and cheap.

In general, modern improved forage program techniques are lumped together as “managed grazing,” and typically mean brief grazing periods and frequent rotations through movable grazing cells bounded by an electrified wire. It features robust rest periods for pasture cells. Cattle are often grazed in close quarters, trampling forage into the ground to help enhance soil health. Such systems often include seeding some annual crops such as sorghum, turnips and legumes into the perennial grasses to add nutrition diversity and a steadier supply of forage year round. Then some forage is stockpiled, which means it is left in the pasture for fall and winter use. That hay reserve is rationed by rotating the herd through the cells – called strip grazing – or by harvesting some of it for winter bale grazing as necessary.

Staff at the East National Technology Support Center of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Carolina and several cattle owners produced a video that describes this type of grazing system. Check it out here. Steve Woodruff, regional agronomist at the center, says, “Some of us here thought that… if more producers could use these techniques of year-round grazing and stockpiling forages and strip-grazing that you will have less energy waste than in having to make hay. Less nutrient loss problems, too, because in many cases the forage being grazed in the winter time is superior to the stored hay. So you have a lot of advantages.” 

Woodruff’s team focused on beef cattle, and he says the year-round system “works very well in the mid-Atlantic region… because you have the types of grasses that can be stockpiled and strip-grazed throughout the winter.” However, he says, “you can extend your grazing season anywhere; it’s just a question of how far can you go with it.”

He notes that using such a system for dairy herds is different. “When you extend that grazing season (for milk cows), you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping the quality where you want it.”  However, hay can be stockpiled for fall and winter feeding of heifers and dry cows, he says.

Besides avoiding hay-making expenses of seeding, cutting and baling, twine, equipment costs and labor, the strip grazing systems reduce fertilizer needs because the animals spend time in each cell, evenly distributing manure and urine deposits.

What’s more, says Brett Chedzoy, a New York beef-cattle rancher and Cornell University cooperative extension agent, grazing cattle most of the year greatly simplifies manure management difficulties. “Many here are under the gun on water quality,” he says. And while nutrient management systems for confinement livestock operations are often hugely expensive, the need for them disappears when livestock lives in pastures year round. He has expanded his grazing season to eight months, hoping to reach nine in most years, and he bale grazes his herd in pastures in the remaining months.


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