Can you grow forages on cropland and provide feed more economically than growing corn for the beef herd? If so, what forages make sense economically, environmentally and nutritionally? Can returning cropland to pasture forages be beneficial for your farm?
There are not any one-size-fits-all answers, but there is some help for those assessing the options. Depending on where you are in the country, the suitability of your land for crop production, and the type of beef operation you run, growing pasture and grazing cattle instead of growing corn — for silage, grain or as a baled forage — on that same land may or may not make sense.
“If you’re not going to grow corn on your crop acres, what’s that going to get you?” Dr. Jay Parsons, Agricultural Economist at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, asked.
Parsons, along with Mary Drewnoski, UNL Beef Systems Specialist, and Daren Redfearn, UNL Forage Specialist discussed the options of taking land out of corn production, and putting it into an annual forage system, or a perennial pasture system for the beef herd. Their webinar presentation “Economics of Forages on Cropland,” can be seen at https://beef.unl.edu
If your land is being used to grow corn, the value in that corn is not only for feed for your cattle, but also for any other revenue it can bring. Without corn, you won’t have extra grain to sell, or corn stalks to graze or sell, either. You will gain the benefit of not having to spend time, fuel, inputs, and labor growing and harvesting the corn crop.
Along with that savings, however, come expenses related to growing pasture forages. If annual crops are going to be used, such as a system with oats in spring, Sudangrass in the summer, and oats along with turnips in the fall, the costs of establishing each crop must be considered. Other costs would include irrigation for the crop, and fencing needed for grazing livestock.
“We’re looking at this as basically your land being your enterprise,” Parsons said. “You save the cost of growing corn.”
A partial budget is the tool used to explore different options, and make comparisons for economic purposes. A partial budget involves the positive and negative results of both alternatives, in order to see which is more advantageous. This type of budget is exclusively looking at only the items that are changing, not the entire farm.
By looking at a partial budget, fixed expenses such as the cost of owning the land or the equipment are not changed. These costs still remain, even if the land or equipment is being used in a different manner, Parsons explained. UNL has partial budget tools available for producers to utilize with their own numbers. These tools also allow producers to put in a range of variables, to determine the break even point where it would begin to pay to transition from corn to other forage crops. This tool can be found at http://rightrisk.org
When calculating a partial budget, cost and revenue assumptions are made. In either the annual or perennial pasture situation, it cost more than growing corn for Nebraska growers, based on the specific assumptions made by the presenters.
These budget projections don’t account for other variables that differ from operation to operation, or that might vary based on region of the country. They also don’t account for long-term benefits, such as fertility of the land, or the nutrients that grazing keeps in the soil.
Putting value on soil organic matter, or increased biological soil health, is not considered in the partial budget as presented. Weed pressure, too, is not considered.
“Every scenario is going to be a little different,” Drewnoski said. “It’s important that if you really want to know the answer for you, you want to put in your own (numbers),” Drewnoski said.
The options of grazing a cover crop after a cash crop is another scenario. The cover crop would likely be planted later than if it was solely planted as an annual grazing crop, Drewnoski said. If a producer is going to produce corn for silage anyway, adding an oat or brassica cover crop could be economical. When compared to harvesting corn for grain on that land only, the corn silage/annual forage scenario resulted in a $75 benefit per acre in the partial budget assumptions provided in the webinar.
In another cover crop scenario, adding fall planted rye into a corn-soybean system, and grazing it in early April, allows for about 35 days of grazing. But you have to terminate the crop in order to plant the next crop. With no negative impact on the cash crop, this scenario seemed to prove beneficial in Nebraska.
Types of operation
Much of the decision to graze cattle, grow feed or purchase feed is based upon the type of operation, the cost fluctuations of purchased feed, the amount of feed needed, and the nutritional composition and availability of pasture forages.
“If you have good forage, that the growing cattle perform well on, logic would say don’t feed your cows,” Parsons said.
The type of cattle operation can impact the decision to grow and harvest a corn crop or to graze other forages. In operations backgrounding calves, for example, the decisions on when to wean, or on whether to feed the calf or pasture it, can depend on grain prices and quality of pasture.
“What’s the value of the corn versus the value of the calf,” is the question for producers to determine, Drewnoski said.
Depending on which region you are in, the characteristics of your land, the type of cattle operation you operate, and the variable costs of inputs, adding a grazing component to your beef operation might offer economic and environmental benefits.