Swapping winter annuals for perennials saves money
Fred Greer says it is cheaper and easier to use Max-Q fescue instead of winter wheat for protein supplement on his northern Georgia ranch.
Greer, a retired banker who took over the family farm near Mansfield from his father in the early 1970s, says he’s always been careful with how he spends the farm’s limited capital.
“The main place you can control things is costs,” he says, adding you can only improve the bottom line a little with marketing.
Greer says he and his father have used limit grazing for nearly 60 years to get the most from winter pasture. In addition, they have used low-input farming each year to establish the winter grazing on 10% to 18% of the farm.
When he was still farming his winter pasture, Greer used an old tractor to minimally work the ground, then broadcast seed with a spreader on his pickup, and then lightly harrowed in the seed.
With all his emphasis on low-cost, efficient forage production, it makes sense that when he got the chance about five years ago, Greer chose a perennial cool-season grass to further reduce costs.
For him, Max-Q fescue was the logical choice. This specialty fescue with an essentially non-toxic endophyte was developed in Georgia and was showing itself capable, hardy and productive. In other regions, other forages might better serve this purpose.
“Cost was a big factor in the decision to change,” Greer says. “The conventional planting is definitely expensive with labor and fuel and wear and tear on machinery. And in a single-person operation like this, you can only spread yourself so far.”
To get an indication of just how economically valuable Greer’s forage change might be, consider these three studies from Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas. None are directly parallel, yet they seem relevant.
The most recent study, using 2008 budgets from Auburn University, compared stocker cattle performance and pasture costs on 37 different forage combinations.
It did not include any of the main non-toxic endophyte fescues, but a combination of Hallmark orchardgrass and ladino clover tied for first place with a pasture cost of gain of 30 cents per pound and the highest average daily gain of the top four places. The orchardgrass forage could be considered similar to a non-toxic fescue in many ways.
Interestingly, the other top two forage combinations in this study were Kentucky 31 tall fescue combined with ladino clover and Kentucky 31 with birdsfoot trefoil. For some of the researchers’ comments on their findings, read the accompanying story above.
The Auburn study included several winter-annual forage offerings. The best was a rye-ryegrass combination, which posted lower average daily gains than the orchardgrass-clover combination and a 60-cent-per-pound cost of gain — twice as high as the orchardgrass-clover.
A 2005 Georgia study of winter stocker budgets compared overseeded winter pasture with stockpiled Max-Q fescue and also with a combination of small grains and corn silage. It offered northern and southern budgets.
The northern Georgia budget showed a return over variable cost of nearly $28 per head for the fescue and a loss of $14 per head on the overseeded winter annuals. The southern Georgia study showed a return of nearly $35 per head on the fescue and a loss of almost $6 per head on the overseeded winter annuals.
The researchers added that running stockers on endophyte-infected fescue will reduce gains by one-half pound per day and profits by about $65 per head.
A University of Arkansas study from 2003-05 also used stocker cattle and tested two other “novel” endophyte-infected fescues against endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 fescue, cereal rye and annual ryegrass. Sometimes the ryegrass outperformed the “novel” fescues and rye, but sometimes not.
In the end, the researchers said the $88 returns on the non-toxic fescues would take four years to amortize establishment costs. They added that perennial forage crops decreased risk of annual stand establishment and offered a longer growing season and acceptable animal performance.
For Fred Greer, lower costs and good performance were important factors, but he also says common sense helped dictate his change: “I want the cattle to do the work.”
This article published in the May, 2010 edition of BEEF PRODUCERS.