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Iowa State IBC cowsystems.jpg Iowa Beef Center
The Iowa Cow Systems Project worked with cow/calf producers across the state

Systems project examines sustainability of Iowa cow/calf sector

Project designed to identify costs, environmental impacts and best practices for Iowa cow/calf operations.

Sustainable beef cow production in Iowa is becoming increasingly critical as the state expands its fed cattle industry and other beef markets while at the same time looking for alternative uses for fragile acres prone to soil erosion, an announcement from the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University stated.

According to the center, competition from volatile grain prices and recreational land uses in Iowa has reduced pasture and forage area by more than 2 million acres -- an 88% decrease -- in just two decades, while beef cow numbers in the state have declined only 14%, based on data collected in the U.S. "Census of Agriculture."

As Iowa beef producers strive to raise more cattle on fewer acres, numerous alternative management strategies are being employed, the Iowa Beef Center said.

From 2015 to 2018, the center partnered with 28 producers across the state in the Iowa Cow Systems Project, which was designed to identify costs, environmental impacts and best practices for Iowa cow/calf operations. For this project, participating operations were categorized into three production systems:

1. Traditional grazing (grazing approximately 50% of the year);

2. Extensive grazing (grazing 75% of the year or more), and

3. Limited or no grazing (grazing less than 25% of the year).

The effort worked to assess emerging beef cow management technologies, detail benchmarks, summarize production and environmental data and develop decision-making tools. The Iowa Beef Center said the ultimate goals were to assist Iowa cow/calf producers across all production systems and to improve the sustainability of the cow/calf segment.

Data collected included production cost records, forage quality, feeds and rations, soil samples to review fertility and soil loss based on land use and conservation methods implemented. Cooperator case studies were developed to demonstrate successful practices within each production system.

According to the Iowa Beef Center, the project's highlights included:

* Total production cost per cow ranged from $615 to $2,340 per year.

* Operations from each system were included in the low-cost third group, so individual management affected production costs more than the system.

* Feed costs represented 39% of total costs and were the largest single cost of production, regardless of system.

* Asset ownership was the second-largest production cost but varied greatly by system.

* Average hay quality from 84 samples did not meet the cow’s energy requirements during late gestation and lactation.

* The majority of pasture samples were adequate in protein to meet animal requirements at all stages of production.

* Mineral costs averaged $35 per cow per year.

* Bedding costs for limit-grazed herds averaged $75-135 per cow per year.

* Pasture can be economical and competitive with surrounding states.

* Pasture and forages reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

Final results of this project were released in publication format recently and are available for producers and industry representatives by request or download.

The Iowa Beef Center comprises faculty and staff from the Iowa State University Extension & Outreach, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine and works to develop and deliver the latest research-based information regarding the beef cattle industry.

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