Feeding the Fescue
In recent summers when most producers in the Midwest struggled to provide enough forage for their livestock due to drought, Kansas backgrounder and cattle buyer David Woods struggled to keep his pastures stocked with enough cattle to consume available forage. In the past two years, Woods placed intense focus on weed control and pasture fertility. His goal is to keep cattle on good pasture year-round.
Woods operates 2,200 acres in southeast Kansas and markets 3,000 head of yearlings each year, maintaining an average year-round stocking rate of two head per acre. Many of his pastures support 2.3 or more head per acre. Woods divides his land into 80 to 160-acre pastures with a couple 220-acre fields. These pastures are stocked with as many as 325 head at a time. He spreads fertilizer in early September, before typical fall rains, using 323 pounds per acre of a 21-69-90 and 17.5-sulfur/1.75-zinc blend to boost plant root growth. This is followed with 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre in January and February to encourage production. Instead of DAP and elemental micros, the MESZ product from Mosaic is used to provide the sulfur and zinc minerals shortly after application. This helps the fescue stay ahead of the weeds.
“What we’re trying to do is up our production without more land,” Woods said.
Hepler AgChoice manager Jess Daniels has helped Woods implement this program and believes there are several advantages to the
schedule. “The timing is a good option for the producer as it is typically a time when we aren’t as busy and fertilizer is not normally moving, so price is usually better,” Daniels said. Using this fertility program, Woods is operating on 1.5 times the forage production as when he began his operation eight years ago—and without purchasing more land. When Woods started grazing cattle here, he thought he had killed the fescue three or four times, but it comes back better every year. “You keep the plant healthy and it’s very resilient. It’s going to come back year after year,” Daniels said.
But fertilization isn’t the only key to Woods’ increased production. “We stockpile hay—in the field,” Woods said. He doesn’t believe it is worth the time and expense to run hay equipment over the field, haul bales out then bring them back later. He admits he probably loses some forage that way, but believes it aids him in naturally reseeding his pastures. “By letting it stand, we get some natural reseeding because the seed falls, the wind blows, the cattle walk through it—whatever. So some of the pressure we put on the grass with our head count is accounted for by the natural reseeding of the grass,” Woods said. In fact, this year Woods said he could have harvested fescue seed—even with a two-head-per-acre stocking rate. “It was impossible to stay ahead of the grass this spring,” Woods said.
Even with excellent stands of grass, Woods decided to drill wheat in a pasture this fall to provide an extra protein source. “Wheat will grow at 28 degrees [lower] temperature than grass. With these high prices we’ve done more of it because protein costs more than it used to,” Woods said. “We did it for medicinal purposes for new cattle, too, because it’s high in protein, 95 percent digestible and very palatable.”
Woods purchases local cattle, most of which are raised within 50 miles of the ranch. “We buy something six days a week, which is really nice. They go to the salebarn, they’re bought, they’re here, and the sun hasn’t set yet. There’s not a lot of stress on them,” Woods said.
One of the biggest advantages Woods’ forage-management program creates is flexibility to market and run a continuous flow of cattle on the ranch.
“In the Flint Hills this year when the grass ran out and it was a dry year, cattle were 75 pounds light, and on a certain day people just had to sell them. We don’t sell anything here until we’re ready to sell them because it’s a year-round deal. If I get into a time like we did last winter when the tradeoff between a 775 pound steer and a calf was really good, I just sold 400 or 500 hundred steers weighing 775 pounds and re-loaded because the yearling was worth so much more than the calf because of the drought,” Woods said.
The grass continues to grow, the cattle continue to come and Woods doesn’t worry about weather affecting his purchases. “If we have a foot or six inches of snow on this grass, it’s not like being in a pen—[the cattle] will go out and lay down somewhere,” Woods said. “You don’t have to stop buying cattle because you’re mudded under. This grass will not get muddy.”
Steers come into Woods’ operation weighing 475 pounds and leave at 925 pounds. “We ship cattle when the ones we buy force the biggest one off,” Woods said. As the weather and markets dictate, Woods’ selling decisions vary. “In the winter, we might drop back to a steer weighing [heavy 800-900] just because it’s winter time and you might not want to carry a big steer. It’s based on what the market allows. This year, the market really didn’t pay us to make one weigh 960, so our cattle from early March until now have averaged about 935,” Woods said.
In addition to the available grass, cattle are fed forage and grain supplement every day. Rations are continuously monitored in relation to the grass supply and are adjusted on a seasonally and sometimes monthly basis.
Woods recognizes he is a grass farmer first and then a cattleman. “I’ve always loved grass, I don’t care if it’s in my yard or my pasture. So there’s a lot of personal satisfaction,” Woods said. His ultimate goal is helping the grass be the dominating plant by making it thick enough weeds can’t grow, reducing the need to spray and fight off outside pressure. Last year the fescue was so thick
Woods only had to spray weeds on 80 acres.
Woods pointed to a group of newly weaned steers grazing. “That is what a young calf was born to do. If you can feed them and then let them do what they’re born to do, it takes a lot of stress out of this business. It’s what we enjoy doing.”
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