From the grass up

It grows where row crops won't, but it's not a second-rate crop.

The literal root of cattle production is grass. Today’s MFA stretches from the deeply rolling pastures of southern Iowa, covers Missouri and southeast Kansas and wraps up in Okalhoma grasslands, Ozark hills and the Delta of Arkansas. When it comes to cow/calf country, we have some of the best.

Outside of Texas, we have the highest concentration of cow/calf pairs in the country. There is a good reason why. In just Missouri, there are 3.2 million acres in hay and another 9.3 million acres in pasture. That’s twelve and a half million acres of forage in an area with dependable rainfall. In theory, we can grow forage.  

But how well do we grow forage in practice? It depends on where you look. In row-crop regions cattle and the pasture they graze can be treated as a secondary enterprise. In more traditional cattle country, forage is more directly linked to a livelihood and takes on more importance. In this issue, we suggest that there are ways for every operation to improve its forage base and produce more beef.

Perhaps most enthusiastic is David Moore on page 14. Moore is MFA’s range and pasture specialist and is known for his mantra: more grass equals more beef. In his tenure at MFA, Moore has carefully tracked chemistries available for pasture improvement. He has cataloged best practices for herbicide applications and watched successful programs boost yield and improve rate of gain per forage acre. In his story, Don’t Feed the Weeds, you will find a handy chart for spot spraying troublesome brush and broadleaf pasture invaders.  

On page 16, MFA director of agronomy Dr. Jason Weirich discusses ammonium nitrate. There is no way of knowing how regulations might affect ammonium nitrate in the coming months and years, but you can expect that federal agencies will give more scrutiny to the fertilizer. Weirich has gathered research to show there are effective alternatives to ammonium nitrate. With modern inhibitors, more forms of fertilizers can deliver nitrogen to forage without excessive loss to volatilization. Weirich bases the discussion on research from MU agronomist Dr. Rob Kallenbach whose nitrogen research on forage was performed on varying geographies in the MFA trade territory.

Long-time Today’s Farmer contributor Jim Ritchie caught up to Kallenbach to discuss long-term forage planning in his story Fine-tune that Forage on page 54. Kallenbach is known for combining research on winter annuals with grazing systems. His studies have pushed the limits on near year-round grazing in Midwest climates. Kallenbach told Ritchie that forage plans have to consider more than short-term yield. “They also must take into account plant persistence, long-term sustainability, cost per unit of beef produced and—ultimately—profitability.”

Speaking of grazing systems and winter forage, MFA’s director of nutrition Dr. Jim White gives a rundown on the nutritional aspects of winter stockpiles of fescue on page 56. “Putting nitrogen on grass pastures is a bet that you cannot lose,” he writes, “The typical response is that 1 pound of nitrogen gives an added 20 pounds of forage dry matter.” Stockpiling fescue is a growing practice and one that keeps cows on pasture longer.

You can see from the statistics I presented at the beginning of this editorial that improving the basic productivity of forages even incrementally across MFA’s trade territory would yield great results. The upfront costs vary. Some are as simple as increased rotation. Some involve investment in fertility and weed control. Grid soil sampling for pasture and forage then following with a variable-rate fertility program is growing in practice and another opportunity for investment.

But even as I cheer for increased forage production, I realize that investing in the long term is difficult. With successive dry years, money to invest is hard to come by—even if market analysts say the future has never been brighter for beef. I don’t have to remind you that such investments carry a weather risk. As I wrote this, the Palmer Drought maps were colored with an ugly and growing blotch of severe drought in Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas with shades of “abnormally dry” in Missouri. Maybe it is time to adopt an old row cropper saying. “Plant it like it’s going to come up.” The only way to improve forage is to make the investment.

-Stev Fairchild, Editor
Today’s Farmer magazine
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Today's Farmer is published 9 times annually. Printed issues arrive monthly except combined issues for June/July, August/September and December/January. Subscriptions are available only in the United States.

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