Impacts of extended grazing season benefits Lake City Research Center

By grazing more and haying less, producers can certainly decrease production costs.

While beef prices are historically high, feed cost must still be managed to enable profitability at the cow-calf level. One goal for the Lake City AgBioResearch Center is to extend the grazing season as much as possible which, in turn, should minimize feed costs. Up until 2008, our grazing season ended in mid-September. This was due in part to a vigorous hay operation and a 1,500 lb. average cow size. Beginning in 2010, two important decisions at Lake City were made. First, the haying operation was dramatically reduced to only existing alfalfa fields and all needed winter hay was purchased. Essentially, the hay fields were grazed. The second important decision was purchasing a set of cows more conducive to the pasture-based strategy. Hence, the existing herd was sold and a more moderately framed, lighter mature size cow was purchased. The current herd now averages 1,150 pounds with a body condition score 5.5 and a frame score of 4.5.

These two decisions have dramatically and positively impacted the center’s budget. In 2011, hay feeding began Dec. 9 versus Sept. 15. For the period of Dec. 9 through Dec. 31, 2011, 170 cows received 176 round bales that averaged 711 pounds per bale. This was an average of 33.46 pounds of hay offered to each cow daily. Using $85.00/ton hay prices, the average daily cow cost for feed (not including machinery, fuel and labor for feeding the hay) was $1.42. Thus a total cost for the 23 day period was $5,552.20 (if spread out for the entire month of Dec., the monthly cost is $7,483.40). Ideally, the center’s objective is to offer the herd 30 lbs. of hay daily. Therefore, in January management tightened the belt and reduced hay feeding to 28.66 pounds daily while still monitoring body condition to ensure energy requirements were met. The daily cow cost is now calculated to be $1.26 or a savings of $30.00 daily for the entire herd.

Based on the arithmetic above, two points should be made. First, extending the grazing season from Sept. 15 to Dec. 9 added 85 days to the grazing season. Using the average daily hay cost from the first two months, daily feed cost per cow is $1.30. Thus the cost of hay for the additional 85 days is $20,519. Based on this reality, it really pays to know your expenditures. Yes hay was purchased, but experience shows beef quality hay is generally purchased cheaper than if produced. By extending the grazing season until Dec. 9, the $20,519 can be used to feed cows into early March. This does not account for the value of nutrients that are brought to the farm through hay purchase, which can add even more to the bottom-line. Further, the addition of annuals/cover crops to extend the grazing season may also be more economically and ecologically beneficial than feeding hay when properly managed.

Second, using a 30 lb. per cow day, daily hay allotment is 2.8 tons. The prior set of cows consumed at least 40 pounds of hay (3.8 ton), which is 25% more feed and cost. In this example we could run 128 big cows, versus 170 of our current cows for the same feed cost. Without question there will not be a 25% weaning weight advantage in the larger cow to offset her cost, perhaps a 10% improvement, but certainly not enough to offset the huge difference in feed cost. In conclusion, Lake City Research Center is already enjoying cost savings decisions to graze longer, hay less and run a more practically sized cow.

To learn more about grazing, attend the Great Lakes Forage and Grazing Conference scheduled March 7 and 8 at the Kellogg Center on Michigan State University’s campus. At this conference, we will be speaking on the many management changes we are making at Lake City to demonstrate how the Michigan beef industry can be more profitable. The conference committee has invited a great set of other speakers and this conference will help in managing your farm practically, profitably and enjoyably. More information can be found at

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