Dr. Scott Barao, retired from the University of Maryland as state beef extension specialist, is now the executive director of the Jorgensen Family Foundation, which was created in 1997 to conduct beef and forage research for the benefit of farmers in the mid-Atlantic. Hedgeapple Farm in Buckeystown, MD, is the working model centerpiece of the foundation, and Barao directs the operations there.
The farm includes 380 acres with significant frontage on the Monocacy River, so environmental stewardship is a critical aspect of the farm operation. “We finish about 120 head each year for market,” said Barao. “We feed both steers and heifers for market.” Barao says the farm works with three cooperator herds that follow Hedgeapple protocols and use Hedgeapple bulls to maintain their genetics.
“It’s the most economically stable system,” said Barao, describing the grass-based system, “and it also produces a product I know is in huge demand by consumers.”
Barao says there are three options for a forage-based beef system: “There’s all-grass, all forage all the time from start to finish, which is really hard but very profitable,” he said. “Then there’s the situation where you supplement with grain post-weaning to finish calves, which is more expensive but a little easier to manage. The third is a feedlot situation.”
No matter what the system, Barao says the most important consideration is to match the cattle to the system. For a cow-calf system, the right cows should be matched to the right bulls. In a forage-based system, cows must gain weight, put on body condition, cycle in 45 days and rebreed, and do that every year. “If your cows don’t do that in a forage or pasture based system, you probably have the wrong cows,” said Barao, “or you need to take a hard look at your pasture system. It isn’t profitable to make your system match your cattle.”
If feeder calves are purchased, it’s important to know the genetics behind the calves, and ideally, visit the cow herd and see the production system in person. “You have to find cattle from seedstock sources who put a priority on economically relevant traits — fertility and forage conversion,” said Barao.
In the Hedgeapple system, the bull is in with the cows for 45 days, and cows are pregnancy checked. Cows that aren’t pregnant are not put in a fall-calving group — they’re culled — which has resulted in a reproductively efficient herd.
Barao lists some of the traits of value to consider in a forage-based cattle feeding system, including mature cow size, milk production, reproductive performance and carcass traits.
“Grazing forage is the least expensive cost source of nutrients to maintain the cowherd,” said Barao. “If you have to buy feed for cows, it’s going to cost a lot of money.” Grazing management, forage quality and stocking rate are the critical balance points in a forage-based system. Barao adds that you cannot profitably create an environment to fit the kind of cows you like.
How can a system be measured? Beef cow efficiency should be based on each producer’s set of resources and how those resources can be used toward profitable and sustainable production. “At weaning time, run calves over the scale,” said Barao. “Run the moms over the scale, and divide the calf weight by the cow weight and get a percentage. A 1,200-pound cow that weans a 500-pound calf has weaned 42 percent of her body weight. A 300-pound heavier cow has to wean a 650 pound calf to produce 42 percent of her body weight. That’s about $27 of extra cow cost per 100 pounds of cow, on average.”
The other factor to consider is efficiency of forage use. There are tools to make those decisions. Some breeds have dollar value indexes available for sires, which express in dollar value the efficiency of forage use by the offspring of a bull. “It’s a dollar savings per cow, in the way the cow converts forage to body weight,” said Barao. “You can go to the sire summary and a bull might be +$40. That means the offspring sired by that bull will improve the efficiency of forage use in the offspring by that amount.”
Barao says this index, and other indexes, are an important selection tool and help lower cow costs. The numbers translate to cows that are fleshier, maintain better body condition, cycle and rebreed reliably, and do it more efficiently in a forage-based system.
Barao says what it boils down to is ‘can you provide, in a cost-effective way, the calories (energy) needed to support the cattle you have? Do you have a year-round grazing and hay production system, and a supply of nutrients sufficient in the quantity and quality to support the genetic potential of the cow?’ “In most cases, the genetics get ahead of nutrition,” he said, “and we don’t get to express all the genetic ability we have in our cows because nutrition becomes the chokepoint.”
A review of the basic physiology of energy priorities shows that energy first goes to basal metabolism, then to grazing and other physical activities, followed by growth, support of basic energy reserves (internal fat), maintaining an existing pregnancy, milk production, adding to energy reserves (external fat/back fat), estrous/initiating new pregnancy; and at the bottom of the priority list is storing excess energy (marbling). “You can get a Holstein steer to marble in the choice grade because the physiology of the dairy cow, especially the Holstein, is such that they efficiently marble,” said Barao. “It’s because ‘last in, first out’. When a dairy cow freshens, you cannot physically feed that cow enough to support energy level to support milk production, so she begins to metabolize fat and mobilize marbling.”
Barao divides the cattle growth phase into thirds. Phase 1 is birth to weaning (8 months), during which calves are expected to gain two pounds/day. After weaning, calves are in phase 2, from weaning to yearling, and gain 2 to 2.4 pounds/day. Phase 3 is yearling to harvest (harvest at 22 months), and calves gain 1.8 to 2.2 pounds/day. “If you don’t get that rate of gain, you will not produce a choice carcass,” said Barao.
Barao provides some of the numbers for carcass performance. Average harvest weight is 1145 pounds, average yield grade is 2.1, ribeye size is 10.9. “Our goal is one square inch per 100 pounds of live weight,” he said. “Steers average 61 percent choice; 32 select+. Heifers are 94 percent choice; 6 percent select+.” Barao added that he’d prefer to raise all heifers because they gain weight faster in this system and almost never grade below choice.
“If you’re profitable, you will be sustainable,” said Barao. “Profitability has to be part of the equation.”