Doug Landblom: Annual crops can create more net return for cattle producers
November 10, 2017
An Extension beef specialist from North Dakota State University in Fargo showed Nebraska cattle producers how they could use grazing and cover crops to produce beef more economically, while reducing production costs.
Doug Landblom, NDSU beef cattle specialist, said he started this research project after searching for ways to shorten the amount of time his yearlings spent in the feedyard, while still reaching his end goal of putting high-quality beef on the table in restaurants. Like most producers, he still wanted to show a good profit on the cattle he produced, and found he could by utilizing cover crops.
"As farmers and ranchers, are your soils and cattle working for you, or are you working for your soils and cattle?" he asked producers last week during a meeting in Chadron, Neb. "If your soils and cattle are working for you, you buy no fertilizer and your cattle are grazing most of the time."
Landblom told producers they should think of their cow as a hired man. "They are harvesting forages, and if they are outside of confinement, then you won't be hauling much manure or feeding much harvested feed," he said.
CARING FOR SOIL
Landblom said they evaluated the synergy between cattle, crops and soil health in a research project in North Dakota. One of the goals was to determine if spring wheat is grown in a crop rotation, would it allow the carbon-nitrogen ratio to break down residue quicker. Spring wheat is one of the main cash crops in North Dakota.
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The study compared spring wheat grown as a cash crop with spring wheat grown in a crop rotation with sunflowers, field peas, corn and a cover crop mixture. Landblom said the crops were all planted using no-till production. The study found cover crops prevent soil erosion, increased soil organic matter and nutrient cycling, reduced fertilizer input, and produced a forage for haying or grazing.
Landblom said he likes the idea of cover crops because it takes advantage of having a live root in the ground, which causes more soil aggregation allowing for better soil and water infiltration. "It builds more organic matter in the soil, which allows the soil to hold more water — especially during drought," he said.
By the fifth year of the study, Landblom said the soil was cycling nutrients from the organic matter which promoted plant growth. They also saw more net return from the spring wheat rotation with other crops, than with the continuous rotation of spring wheat.
YEARLING STEER GRAZING
In another study, Landblom said they explored a system of grazing weaned calves on native range and cover crops to determine if it would be cheaper than putting them into a feedlot. Under this system, the calves grazed native range for 108 days at a cost of $115 a steer, pea-barley intercrop for 32 days at $63 a head, unharvested corn for 71 days at $111 a head, and a 32 percent crude protein supplement fed with the corn at $11 a head.
Landblom says the calves entered this system at 780 pounds, and weighed an average of 1,275 pounds when they were eventually placed in the feedlot. They grazed an average of 211 days, which is about the same amount of time weaned calves spend in the feedlot until they are finished.
He sees this systems research as a benefit to producers who want to get a better return on their cattle. They can take advantage of seasonality in the cattle market, by moving the calves forward or back during peak market times to take advantage of better prices, he said.
Producers interested in feeding calves standing corn in the field questioned Landblom on the process of conditioning. The beef specialist told producers the calves need to be started on whole corn slowly so the rumen can become conditioned to it. "It takes at least a week to condition them to it," Landblom said. "I like to put them in a small pasture and work them up on the corn."
During this study, he said none of the calves exhibited signs of acidosis, bloat or long toes. However, he cautioned producers to keep the fields of standing corn on the smaller side by crossfencing with electric fence. The calves eat leaves, husks, silks, and then the corn, he said. "Green corn is very succulent, and they like it. They will transition to dry corn as it freezes in the fall."
Landblom also talked briefly about a comparison study at NDSU of winter feeding methods. During this study, they compared three methods of feeding, including hay and supplement, which was the control group; grazing cover crops, corn and sunflower residue; and grazing stockpiled grass pastures and corn residue. The three-year study involved 144 May-June calving cows over a 134-day wintering period from November through April.
He also shared a study looking at developing small- and large-frame replacement heifers on forage. The study looked at the effect of frame score on growth, fertility and economics.
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.