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Rations for the range

A low fog hangs over the pasture where Lyman Pittman and his son-in-law, Tylor McNiel, feed several hundred head of cattle on their Texas County, Mo., ranch.

“This is the old MFA Bucket Rattler,” Pittman said, referring to the 14% protein range cubes he’s dispensing from the portable feeder on his pickup truck. MFA has offered this popular ration for sever­al years, and both Pittman and McNiel have seen the benefits of feeding the cubes.

“The cows come running for it,” said McNiel, who is married to Pittman’s oldest daughter, Lacey. “At the beginning of this winter, I had one cow I wasn’t sure would make it through to spring. She’s the first one to the truck every day now.”

On this dreary day in mid-February, the farm was in the thick of calving. Though the herd calves year-round, many of the babies are born in the spring.

“For some of these calves, it’s their first day in the world, and it’s cold and damp,” Pittman said. “This is the toughest day of the year for them.”

It’s in conditions like these where cattle benefit from a feeding supplement such as range cubes, according to MFA Director of Livestock Nutrition Dr. Jim White.

“In general, supplementing the forage base in the winter is needed to meet the animals’ nutrient needs, maintain productivity, body condition, calf vigor, all those things,” White said. “Feeding a supplement prevents a decline in animal performance due to in­adequate forage quantity and/or quality. It is usually easier to maintain body condition on cows than it is to replace body condition if it has slipped.”

Land in this part of the state is better suited for cattle than crops, and Pittman’s farm has been in the family for generations. The veteran cattleman pulled up a picture on his phone, showing an old news­paper clipping from 50 years ago that was recently reprinted.

“A large real estate transaction involving 1,016 acres of Texas county farm land is expected to be consummated March 23. Dwight Pittman of Suc­cess, Mo. is buying property along with 300 head of cattle, machinery and a two-bedroom home.”

“That was my dad,” Pittman said. “He was a tim­ber guy. A lot of this was all woods at one time.”

According to the article, that purchase in 1970 doubled the size of the farm, and it has since grown further. Pittman and McNiel still maintain the timber business in addition to raising cattle. They usually begin feeding MFA range cubes in January and stop in mid-April.

“There are a lot of advantages to feeding the cubes,” Pittman said. “We’ve got a lot of territory on this old rocky farm, and I can take these cattle anywhere I want to. They will travel wherever I want them to go. And when we want to wean these calves, they already know how to eat feed.”

Through the winter, Pittman and McNiel feed roughly 4-5 pounds of range cubes per head, per day. The cubes are delivered to their farm from the MFA feed mill in Lebanon, Mo., though their local MFA Agri Services is in nearby Houston, Mo., where they work with manager Darrell Scheets and warehouseman Wayne Harper.

“Our range cubes cost about 10 cents a pound, so we spend about 40-50 cents a day,” Pittman said. “Hay probably costs 4 or 5 cents a pound, but we would have to feed a cow 30 pounds. It’s $1.50 versus 50 cents.”

The math makes sense for their operation, he said. It also helps ensure their cattle are getting adequate nutrition when it’s most needed.

“I just think everything is better about it,” Pittman said. “We like the way our cattle act when we feed the cubes. They prefer it over fescue hay. I know they’re going to eat the feed, and it’s going to do them some good.”

White points out additional advantages to the range cubes, such as their versatility, con­sistency and beneficial nutrition.

“It’s flexible where the cubes can be fed,” White said. “Meaning, a person can feed it on the ground with minimal waste. Like­wise, it’s also available in a variety of different formulations that provide the animal with a comprehensive supplementation of vitamins, minerals, trace minerals and protein. It can also be used as a vehicle for adding medica­tions or feed additives when hand feeding and intake can be controlled.”

Pittman looks across the herd, pointing out certain cows and commenting on their body condition to McNiel and Harper, who are along for the ride.

“I’m not sure why more people don’t grasp onto the cube idea,” Pittman said. “A friend of mine, a good cattleman, told me about it originally as an alternative way to feed cattle. I can feed these cows range cubes and get rid of half the hay. I just think everything about it is better.”

Pasture plans

As blue skies and green grass of spring replace the dull gray and brown of winter on the ranch, McNiel recalls how this pasture was covered in trees not long ago.

“You couldn’t get through here with a truck. The oaks and hickories were so thick,” he said. “About six years ago, we decid­ed we needed more space to expand our herd. That’s when we began working on this.”

Around the same time, Pittman and McNiel began talking with MFA Range and Pasture Specialist David Moore.

“Darrell mentioned what they were doing and asked if I’d visit with them,” Moore said. “When I got there, Lyman and his daughter were riding around on a side-by-side with a sprayer, and each of them had a wand to spot spray brush. That kicked off a conversation about what he was trying to accomplish and how we could make it more efficient.”

Moore proposed they bring out MFA application equipment to speed up the process of controlling the tree sprouts.

“I asked them how many tankfuls they had gone through already and suggested it might be easier to bring out one of our spray rigs,” Moore said. “Lyman asked what product I’d recommend, and if memory serves me correctly, my answer was Remedy and Tordon 22K. He thought that would be fairly expensive, but he was willing to give it a try.”

Pittman committed to trying Moore’s recommendations on a smaller field before scaling up.

“After that, I didn’t hear from him for a while,” Moore said.

But during that time, Pittman was still working toward his goal. He put together his own spray rig to get into some of the rougher hills on the farm, and McNiel went to work operating it.

“David helped us tremendously,” McNiel said. “We’ve learned a lot from him. He’s probably taught us the most, but we’ll talk to anybody and everybody. We can make grass as efficiently as anyone can now.”

The contrast between the treated and untreated portions of the property were clearly evident, McNiel said.

“I remember one field where I ran out of chemical about half­way through,” he said. “The difference between the two halves was unbelievable. When you get rid of the weeds and all the other competition, so much more grass grows.”

When Moore was invited back to the farm, he noticed the difference, too.

“They’ve significantly opened up many acres of the farm that were formerly inaccessible,” Moore said.

In 2017, MFA hosted a forage tour and grower meeting on the property to highlight the work Pittman and McNiel had done and allow other growers the opportunity to ask questions.

“We’ve won the war on sprouts, but it’s a process,” McNiel said. “Once you get your sprouts wiped out, then you have the buckbrush and sage grass to deal with.” 

To stay on top of weed control and continue expanding both their land and herd, McNiel and Pittman have been spraying herbicides on roughly 4,000 acres annually—2,000 in the spring and 2,000 in the fall—for the past few years.

“When you talk about spraying that much acreage, that’s a lot of dollars,” McNiel said. “But, we’re to the point now where we only have to do a little bit of spraying for weeds, and then we’ll spread phosphorus to help with the sage grass.”

They are still renovating parts of the farm, McNiel said, but they have a handle on it. They know what they need to do to reach their target. They’re also trying out MFA’s Nutri-Track precision fertility program on about 40 acres.

“Our goal is to run a thousand cows,” McNiel said. “When you have ground with sprouts and weeds growing on it like we had, you’re not producing very much grass. To us, noth­ing grows more grass than good weed control.”

For more information on feed supplements or pasture renovation, contact your MFA or AGChoice location to con­sult with an MFA livestock specialist or range and pasture specialist.



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