Contract grazing tips

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Grazing one’s own land can provide an economic way to raise beef cattle; however, not every cattleman possesses enough land to effectively graze his herd. Whether he grazes his cattle on his own land or on someone else’s, it costs money. Father and son team Jon and Jared Luhman operate Dry Creek Red Angus. The family-owned direct market, grass-fed beef and organic cash crop farm is in Goodhue, MN. Their herd contract grazes on cover crops and crop residue, including their neighbor’s fields and at sites as remote as Nebraska. They shared their findings at “Contract Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed,” a recent webinar hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

“It’s really important to identify your factors about your farm and your needs,” Jon said. “We’re evolving and trying new things every year.”

They prefer grasslands management over a crop farming/haying management, Jon said. This type of management enables him to spend the winter months in British Columbia, where his wife is from, without daily cattle care. Jared and his wife both work off the farm, so having fewer responsibilities in the winter offers them a break too. The couples want to produce at low cost and are not as focused on high yearling weights or weaning weights.

“After organic crop farming for the past 20 years, I have not improved my land as much as I had hoped,” Jon admitted. “The tillage that we did when we began – I didn’t realize the damage we were doing.”

A few years ago, Jon and Jared began to talk about the cost of hay production and “it was kind of a light bulb moment for me,” Jon said.

Typically, the farm would leave a hay stand two to three years. The Luhmans figured stand depreciation expenses for their oats/alfalfa/grass seeding: four tons of yield/acre, stand establishment cost of $12.50/ton, land rent at $50/ton, fertilizer value of $33/ton and machinery harvest cost at $61/ton to arrive at the total cost of hay as $156.50/ton. The cost of raised hay is $2.73 per cow day (the amount one cow eats per day).

“Land costs have gotten really expensive,” Jon said. “It’s hard for a beef cow to compete on that kind of land. Land rent at $200 an acre is fairly common for this area.”

One hay option is buying it. The best price he’s found is $115/ton. This varies based upon season and availability.

“For high quality feed, it’s usually tested,” he said. “It’s hard to justify paying $200 per ton. We’ve gotten $200 to $300 for hay we’ve made for dairymen. We feed our beef rye hay or the poorer quality hay. But if we feed it to our cows, we have to charge our cows that too.”

Instead of figuring in the cost of making hay and using it rather than selling it, they would rather buy cheap hay or “graze our way out of it,” Jon said. “If we don’t make hay, it frees up our land to be able to graze.”

Jared agreed that “if we can graze cattle on our land in the summer and not do any haying, it pays for the cost for our cattle to go somewhere else.”

“Take a look at your context,” Jared said. “Maybe your land is more or less expensive. Look at your cost.” For their farm, it came down to reducing costs while fitting in with their desired lifestyle of less winter management.

“Every day we’re grazing, we’re not feeding hay and not working to make that hay,” Jon said. “The first way we tried to do that is with sorghum Sudan grass.” They found sorghum Sudan grass advantageous, since 60% of their pasture production is in May and June, leaving lower production later in the season.

“We saw sorghum Sudan grass as a way to get more growth later in the season,” Jon said. “It grows all year and never loses quality until frost.” And since sorghum continues to produce biomass, it offers more value longer.

“Even though there’s snow, you can have access to sorghum Sudan grass, and that’s not the case with perennial pasture,” Jon said. “Cows can’t dig through snow.”

Rotationally grazing with sorghum allowed them to rest their perennial pastures. Grazing warm cover crops in autumn and winter offered “a range of production off of these acres,” Jon said.

With sorghum Sudan grass, they had 170 to 180 cow days/acre and the animals could graze as late as Jan. 10.

“There’s potential to get upwards of 200 cow days per acre if the weather holds,” Jon said. “It’s a good opportunity to reduce our costs. Another advantage of sorghum Sudan grass is you can plant it in the middle to the end of June and get this biomass. You can plant a whole other crop, like a hay crop first.”

They have also used covers like an oat/pea mixture harvested off as hay with some additional costs to make the hay for $1.64/cow day.

By grazing their cattle on a nearby farm’s cover residue, they helped the farmer keep the fertility on the land while providing low-cost forage. “Our hope was this would be advantageous for both of us,” Jon said. “He’d get animal impact on his land and generate a $59 per acre return on those expenses. It didn’t work out quite as we had hoped. We learned quite a bit.”

Another option the duo is trying is shipping the cattle to Nebraska from Nov. 1 – March 1. The yardage costs $0.85/day with extra for minerals; the trucking costs $80/cow. They also had to pay for a health exam and metal IDs. If the snow became too deep, they would have to pay for hay at $70/ton. The estimated cost was $1.55/cow day. Nebraska is 500 miles from their farm and the $80/cow charge is for a two-way trip.

Grazing at the neighbor’s meant more hands-on cow care, such as erecting and taking down fencing, which takes 10 hours’ labor. It also does not include the labor for providing water and supplemental hay. Grazing at home required moving the cows every five to seven days so they don’t waste feed and selectively graze.

“We try to graze as long as we can,” Jon said. “Cattle should eat perennial forage. In our area it’s cool season grasses and then we try to extend it with cover crops. We’ve been happy with sorghum Sudan grass to extend the season.

“When we buy hay, we can import the fertility and select the paddocks that need the most help. We almost never select the low spots. That’s where the good soil washes away and where there’s the most moisture. We feed on the side of a hill where there’s less good soil.”

Feeding the cows at home means they can check on their cows whenever they want and they keep the fertility at the farm, but it is the most expensive option.

“We could get better at buying hay,” Jon said. “Buy it early, find truckers who can haul when it’s convenient to them.”

Jon also thinks it is difficult to “sell” other farmers on the idea of planting a cover crop if they’re deeply convinced that a rotation of corn and soybeans is the way to go.

“A cover crop won’t have those kinds of returns, but there are people interested in improving their land fertility,” he said.

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