Like a bouncer unhooking the velvet rope restraining the crowd outside a trendy nightclub, William Lee releases the polywire electric fence holding his hungry cattle out of a strip of standing milo.
The cows, calves and bulls rush through the opening, fervently feasting on the grain, leaves and stalks covered in snow and ice from an early January storm. The cattle don’t seem to mind that their lunch is frozen. It doesn’t take long before the patch is mostly depleted, and the herd wanders back into the adjacent fallow field.
“You can tell they love this stuff,” said Rusty, William’s father, as they watch the animals devour their daily meal of milo. “The cattle will eat the heads first, which takes them about 30 minutes. Then it takes about two hours to eat everything else. They only leave about the bottom 18 inches of stalk.”
The Lees have been growing and grazing milo—or grain sorghum— for the past seven years on their diversified farm in Truxton, Mo. The crop makes up most of the late fall and winter diet for their cow/calf herd as well as their flock of Katahdin hair sheep. The family also raises corn and soybeans, maintains grass pastures and produces garlic for seed stock and direct sales to consumers.
Rusty, who serves as University of Missouri Extension agronomy field specialist in Montgomery County, was introduced to strip-grazing milo by a neighbor who has been successfully using the unconventional concept for more than 20 years. After seeing the benefits for himself, Rusty was a believer. Now, he likes to tell other producers it’s the “best-kept secret” in winter cow feeding.
“You can actually cut your feed costs by half or more by grazing milo, which is huge,” Rusty said. “The single largest factor determining profit and loss in cow/calf production is feed expenses. If we can get a handle on reducing that cost, those dollars go straight to the bottom line.”
He has the numbers to prove it. The Lees grow 12 acres of milo, which Rusty figures at 400 cow-days of feed per acre. That gives him 218 days’ worth of feed for his 22 head of cattle.
“It doesn’t take a lot of acres to generate a lot of feed,” Rusty said. “Now, the cows don’t get all that. The sheep are taking a cut out of it, but we still end up with plenty of milo to get us through the winter.”
Landry Jones, MFA grazing conservation specialist, is also a proponent of this practice, which he said is gaining momentum among livestock producers.
“There aren’t a lot of options for grazing annuals, other than some cover crops or small grains, that provide nutrition through the winter,” Landry said. “Milo, on the other hand, will withstand the weather and remain upright, even with snow on the ground. The animals can still pick the grain and have good access to the forage.”
Minimal resources required
Similar to rotationally grazing grass pastures, the Lees partition their milo fields into strips that will provide cattle a daily allowance of grain and forage. Step-in fenceposts, a quality fence charger and a single strand of electric polywire are the only equipment required.
“To feed the cows today will take me about 15 or 20 minutes,” said William, an MFA Foundation scholarship recipient and student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “I just roll up the wire, and the cattle will be standing there waiting. They walk in and start eating. I move the wire once a day for the cows, but I give the sheep a bigger section. Because they’re smaller animals, they won’t trample as much, so I can give them about a week-and-a-half’s worth.”
While the simplicity of this system is certainly an advantage, the Lees said the economic benefits are even better. They found that grazing milo ultimately pencils out more profitably than feeding hay.
“Let’s say that a 1,200-pound cow consumes somewhere close to 3% of her body weight for dry matter intake. The hay costs you about 3 cents a pound, if you figure $30 for a 1,000-pound round bale,” Rusty explained. “So, it’s costing you over $1 a day, per head, per cow, to feed hay.”
“But I tell producers in my meetings, if anybody’s got any bales of hay they want to sell for $30, let me know,” he continued. “We’re really looking at more like $45 a bale, and that’s not the extreme years. Now, you’re around $1.60 per day per cow—and you’ll need to supplement some energy.”
On the other hand, Rusty continued, feeding milo in the field calculates to about 60 cents per head, per day, according to MU Extension’s crop management budget.
“In the expenses, we include the fertilizer and the land rent and the machinery and depreciation, all that stuff, but we don’t need to figure in the expenses of the combine, semi or grain bin,” he said. “The cattle are harvesting it for you. When you take those harvest expenses out, you just removed 40% of the cost of growing milo.”
With milo, however, protein supplementation is needed. Samples of the Lees’ grain sorghum show that it provides more than 70% total digestible nutrients but only 7.5% protein.
“There’s a lot of energy, but it’s shy on protein,” Rusty said. “So, you want to provide extra protein. If you don’t, the animal’s performance will suffer. Straight milo by itself, with absolutely no hay, no pasture and no supplementation, is a train wreck. So, you can feed hay and supplement energy or graze milo and supplement protein. Protein is cheaper to supplement.”
Good-quality hay can provide some of those nutritional needs, and the Lees are even experimenting with interseeding their milo with kale and turnips to boost protein levels. Self-fed, free-choice supplements such as tubs, liquid feed or minerals are also effective options. Dr. Jim White, MFA director of livestock nutrition, recommends 20% Performance First Tubs or Ultralyx 20% AN Tub, MFA Salt Mix, QLF lick tanks and Ricochet or XI minerals. If hand-feeding, White said, 2 pounds a day of MFA Cattle Breeder Cubes is also a good alternative.
“Fundamentally, the objective of supplemental feeding of grazing cows is to provide adequate nutrients to the animal and to enhance forage utilization,” White advised. “Having said that, the other objective is to make money. Producers need to match forage nutrients and requisite supplements with animal requirements. Get the forage base tested so you know where you are starting.”
Push for grain production
Even when grazing is the main goal, Rusty emphasized that milo needs to be grown for grain. Seed selection, fertilization and herbicide and insecticide applications should all be made with maximum yields in mind.
“You’re a grain farmer, trying to make bushels,” he said. “If you try to do anything other than what you would for a combine crop, you’re messing up. Fertilize milo like you do corn, just not quite as heavy. If you try to grow it without the right fertility, you’re going to get a forage crop, not a grain crop.”
Under the right growing conditions, the Lees said their milo typically produces 120 bushels per acre. Other farmers may not have the soil to support such high yields, Landry cautions.
“If you’ve got the ground, then milo really works,” he said. “Whether it’s good or bad soil, you’re still going to have the input costs. It comes down to how much you can produce. Folks need to consider whether they can grow good-quality milo. If not, then some other forage type may need to be considered.”
The Lees plant milo at the end of May or first part of June, after their corn and soybeans are in the ground. They typically start grazing milo in early November after the first killing frost.
“With milo, the biggest thing you have to watch out for is prussic acid poisoning,” Rusty said. “Where you will see that be a problem is right after the fall frost. You’ve got this green, growing milo, and frost comes along and kills it. At that point, it’s poisonous to the cattle for a week to 10 days. Our average fall frost is around Oct. 14, so we stay out of the milo until about Nov. 1.”
When choosing milo varieties, Rusty emphasized that growers should select for standability.
“By Valentine’s Day, stalk quality starts degrading and the milo starts trying to blow over,” he said. “Producers need to choose varieties with good stalk strength. I also like heads that are a little tighter so they don’t spring out and catch a bunch of snow load. A compact head also makes it a little harder for the birds to eat.”
But the Lees don’t mind sharing their milo with wildlife. Even when limiting the cattle with daily allocations, Rusty said, they waste some of the grain, which becomes prime pickings for birds, deer and other animals.
“We estimate that about 80% goes in the mouth of the cow,” he said. “If you’re producing 100-bushel milo, there’s 20 bushels spilled on the ground. There’s a lot of wildlife feed, and that’s fine. We have been big quail hunters in the past, so we keep old fencerows and do some things a little more conservation-minded. The doves love this field, and so do the ducks.”
Beyond savings in feed costs, the Lees have realized benefits that are less obvious but just as significant. For example, instead of removing plant nutrients with the harvested crop, much of the fertility remains in the field where it’s grazed.
“From a nutrient cycling standpoint, it’s very beneficial,” Landry said. “The animals are trampling a lot of the fodder they’re not consuming, so that promotes organic matter. It’s better from a stewardship standpoint than a harvested field that remains bare.”
What’s more, the Lees said they have seen improved conception rates in their herd since switching from stockpiled fescue to grazing milo over the winter.
“I can’t claim that we did that on purpose,” Rusty admitted. “We do fall calving, and the bulls get turned in Dec. 1. So our cattle have been getting 30 days on milo before breeding started. Animal science data shows that if you take cows off infected fescue for as little as 30 days prior to breeding, you’ll see a boost in conception rates. Essentially, that’s what is happening here.”
For all its advantages, however, there are some drawbacks, the Lees admit. Someone has to be on the farm to move the fence every day, and the cattle make a mess trampling through the milo in wet, snowy conditions.
“Consider the potential for erosion when you plant milo for grazing,” Landry suggests. “Maybe choose a site that is good and flat or up on a hill, an area that’s not going to weather badly in our winter conditions.”
He also points out that the availability of water can make a difference in where a milo patch is placed.
“Water is critical, so that can sometimes be a limiting factor on where you plant,” he said. “You need a water source that those animals can easily access. From a planning standpoint, keep that in mind.”
While it may not be appropriate for every livestock operation, Landry said the practice of grazing milo has been gaining ground as producers seek ways to improve profitability.
“There’s been a mindshift with producers realizing that their biggest expense is in stored feed, and they’re figuring out how to reduce those costs,” he said. “Extending the grazing season, whether it be with perennial or annual forage, is one practice that’s becoming more common. Any time those animals are out grazing is going to be more profitable for an operation.”