by: Clifford Mitchell

Beef producers have many tools to cope with rising costs depending on their place in the segmented industry. Genetics, mature cow size, herd health and designing a nutrition program to satisfy budget needs are probably things that are easily identified by most producers in the quest to “trim the fat”. A good price forecast allows some producers to rest on their laurels, thinking the market will carry the day without working on the expense side of the equation.

As producers dissect costs, subtle things like forage quality and pasture management creep into the scenario. Every cattleman knows grass is the cheapest feed resource, but it sometimes gets lost in the important discussions like bull selection, which vaccines to use or the best time to market. Improving forage quality and extending the grazing season are quickly joining these important planning sessions because the value of gain or maintaining cattle on cheap forage resources is a money maker.     

“Legumes, mainly clovers in my area, can definitely extend the grazing season with a grass like fescue. When combined with bermuda grass, forage quality could be declining with stockpiled forages and legumes will actually improve those forages in the fall of the year,” says Dr. Rocky Lemus, Extension Forage Specialist, Mississippi State University.

“In Louisiana, we plant legumes the same time we do rye grass. We don't have a lot of options for summer legumes in our area,” says Dr. Ed Twidwell, Extension Forage Specialist, Louisiana State University.

Obviously, there is no “cookie cutter” recipe to map out forage production for any given area of the country. Too many variables exist and some producers need to be open minded enough to try some different options.

“Legumes are pretty site specific in our area. What works one place may not work down the road. Plant some different varieties of clover and see what works best,” Twidwell says. “Crimson clover has been working well in the rolling soils and we have had good results with white clover in the tighter soils.”

“Different species of clover fit different areas based on moisture and soil type,” Lemus says. “Red clover doesn't handle the wet areas, but white clover seems to be very productive in this situation.”

In this era of seemingly endless rises to cost of production, adding legumes provides benefits to the bottom line. Deciding which legume to incorporate or how to manage the grazing system is a logical starting point.

“There are many advantages to legumes. Legumes produce nitrogen that can be utilized by other grasses. Annual legumes are very beneficial to summer grasses. Perennial clovers provide long term benefits and help soil fertilization,” Lemus says. “With any legume you are going to have an initial cost and sometimes the annual varieties in our area end up costing more. You get most of the benefit from clover toward the end of their growing season when they start to die out or go dormant and distribute nitrogen to other plants.”

“The clover will help reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer. Most of our clovers have to be treated as annuals. We can sometimes get a couple years out of red clover and white clover seems to be a little more dependable in our area. Ball clover is starting to get some attention because it seems to re-seed and come back year after year,” Twidwell says. “Our area is unique because it gets so hot and humid in the summer, these clovers don't seem to thrive and persist.”

Managing the grazing season will have tremendous benefits to the operation. Knowing the needs of livestock matched with the forage base could provide many returns. The value of gain, from low cost inputs, has never been higher.

“In our area, it's important to bridge that gap. Extending the period from the time rye grass plays out until we get some good quality bermuda grass. If we get timely rainfall in May and June white clover works really well,” Twidwell says. “As rye grass plays out there is not much available grazing, clovers can give you a little bit of insurance. There needs to be quality grazing during that transition period to keep uniform gains.”

Legumes can help replenish the soil and compliment other forage species. Proper grazing management practices will enhance these benefits and allow producers to get the most out of the forage program.

“Some clovers, like arrow leaf and crimson, can handle a little higher grazing pressure, but take a little longer to recover. White clover has a little longer recovery period in the summer and shorter in the fall. Each pasture needs to rest a certain number of days to give the clovers a competitive advantage,” Lemus says. “Producers should target a 30 to 40 percent stand of clover to eliminate bloat problems. When the seeding rate gets higher than this, cattle are consuming more clover and there could be problems. If cattle have never been in a legume pasture, acclimate them with just a few hours of grazing at first, provide bloat blocks and even some dry clover hay to get them adjusted.”

“Rest is very important to grazing patterns,” Twidwell says. “This helps avoid the big spikes in forage quality during the grazing season.”

As producers work to establish legumes in the forage program, there are some disadvantages that come with the benefits. Like most decisions made in the beef business, this also needs to be analyzed.

“Some of the better managers I work with are taking advantage of adding legumes to their forage base. I think there is still an education process to gain wider acceptance,” Twidwell says. “The fact these forage species show very little dependability on a year to year basis, in our area, could discourage some. There is an initial seed cost and that up front cost scares some people, but producers should be able to make that up with reduced fertilizer requirements and more uniform gains.”

“You have to have a well established stand to get the benefits from the legumes. Some annuals we can let go to seed and they'll come back next year,” Lemus says. “A good soil test is really important if you're going to incorporate legumes. If soil pH is too low some of these varieties may not survive. Legumes need potassium and phosphorus to be productive. A cheap source of fertilizer, like chicken litter, is a good option.”

Weed control is another component of good pasture management. Increasing productivity sometimes involves decreasing the population of undesirable species.

“Weed control needs to be established and taken care of before we start planting legumes. Producers need to know what weeds they have and control them,” Lemus says. “Once we establish legumes in our pastures, we're very limited when it comes to broadleaf weed control and most of these options are very expensive.”

“Weed control is major problem with legumes. If you have a weed problem there are very few herbicides that are available,” Twidwell says. “There are some pH disadvantages associated with legumes.”

As expenses for harvested forages continue to rise, keeping cattle grazing provides many benefits to the operation. Making forages work and stay in a high quality state, throughout the grazing period, should be the goal for most operations. Class of livestock and end product goals will shape the final details, but improving skills as a “grass farmer” continue to produce profit.

“A lot of producers can see the changes coming from the expense side. Better rotations and extending the grazing period are at the top of the list,” Lemus says. “Some of our producers taking some highly productive hay ground out of production to help balance the grazing system.”

“We're seeing producers add forage diversity to their grazing programs, which spreads out their risk. A forage system that starts with oats, for early grazing, adds rye grass and clover and follows up with a summer annual like Pearl millet works really well,” Twidwell says. “The main benefit producers get is high quality forages throughout the grazing season. This avoids spikes in forage quality. Operations that focus on forage diversity can also better survive dry weather or drought conditions.”

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