Angus at Work

Only So Much Grass — How to Stretch Grazing

August 17, 2022 Angus Beef Bulletin Season 1 Episode 14
Angus at Work
Only So Much Grass — How to Stretch Grazing
Show Notes Transcript

Cattle are amazing creatures because they can turn grass into protein, but how they get that grass varies across the country. This episode shares insight on creatively stretching grazing from both small and large operators, and from the east to the west. Tune in now to hear how Chad Woods, Firsthand Foods in North Carolina, and Rob Elder, Elder Farms in Oregon, make things work.

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Welcome to Angus At Work. Thanks for tuning in. This is your host Kasey Brown. I am joined today here in Houston, Texas. We're at the Cattle Industry Convention. We attended the Cattleman's College this morning, it's always a great program of education. And one of the popular sessions today was about creatively stretching your grazing resources. And so I'm joined today by Rob Elder and Chad Woods. Welcome, thanks for talking with me today. If you could give us a little bit of your background in the beef industry.

Chad Woods:

Chad Woods from North Carolina. My wife and I run a small beef operation in central North Carolina. We've got about 25 cows, so very small operation, which is still kind of average for that area. We started that in 2014. Family ran a dairy up until 1997 when we sold out, so we had a few years there without cows and got back into it. We both work off farm, off-farm jobs, and that was just a way to add some income to the farm and kind of keep everything together and keep it going. So a little background there.

Host Kasey Brown:

Awesome. You said this is an expensive hobby, right? It's not really a hobby.

Chad Woods:

It's not really a hobby. A hobby shouldn't take that much work. And most of the time hobbies don't make you any money. We started out of the dairy business into a small square bale hay business for the horse industry, a lot of horses around where we're from. So that's been the backbone of the farm for some time. With a lot of the local beef markets popping up, we saw that there was opportunity for us to start raising some beef cows and harvest those locally and sell it locally and that kind of stuff. So that's kind of what we got into that seems to be a good little trend for us. We're able to stay small and it's a lot of fun and enjoyable, but not too overwhelming.

Host Kasey Brown:

Mr. Elder tell us about your operation.

Rob Elder:

My name is Rob Elder. I grew up in the ranching industry. My brothers now own the ranch. So even though we've been ranching all the time, we're kind of first generation. Our kids, we have one daughter on the ranch now. When we got married, I owned two cows and 13 horses I think, or something.

Host Kasey Brown:

And how big are you now?

Rob Elder:

Oh, we're at 1,150, a little over that, mother cows. We run all our yearlings on through.

Host Kasey Brown:

And you said you are cow-calf. You finish calves when the market says, right?

Rob Elder:

We do different things depending on market conditions. We have typically finished cattle, our own cattle. We're not right now. We're selling yearlings, but we have even sold calves at times, just depending on market conditions.

Host Kasey Brown:

Well talk me through, what are the forages like on your operation during, let's say just normal, good years? And we know normal is relative, especially right now, but talk us through what's normal for you.

Rob Elder:

So much of our operation is dependent upon public lands. BLM, we use in the spring. We do summer some cattle on BLM, but primarily for service grazing allotments. We have deeded land that we graze yearlings on, most of it's irrigated, not all of it. The forages vary. It varies widely. And in the winter, that's when we have to feed for a while.

Host Kasey Brown:

You said they vary, but what types of grasses are pretty normal for your area?

Rob Elder:

They're native grasses, Blue Bunch Wheat grass, there's some Needle grass, Idaho Fescue. They're the primary grasses up on the BLM ground. Forest service, there will even be some Timothy, but most of it's pine. Well, let me see, it's Squirrel Tail. There is a vast variety on those forest service allotments, but there're all native grasses.

Host Kasey Brown:

Excellent. And Chad, tell us about the forages that are available to you, let's say in a normal year.

Chad Woods:

So normally the main forages for us is fescue. We're on that Eastern edge of the fescue belt. So we utilize that year round. It kind of goes dormant on us during that hot, dry spell, July and August. We get a lot of crab grass coming through about that time of year. But we still use those that fescue base a lot, even we graze that all winter. So that kind of helps us offset some of the hay cost of feeding through the winter and that kind of stuff. We use a lot of annuals to kind of fill in those gaps. So summer annuals, millet, sorghum, Sudan, teff. Wintertime, we also use those winter annuals, Wheat, oats, we've used radishes, triticale, just about anything you can think of and really it's all depending on what the cost of it is that year. Because some years, seed's so expensive, but you can kind of switch up what you're doing and save some money, but you still get the grazing. But that fescue base is our bread and butter really.

Host Kasey Brown:

And you talked about you invested the time and the money for novel endophyte fescue. Can you talk to how that has benefited your operation?

Chad Woods:

Sure. So most of the fescue in the Fescue belt is Kentucky 31. It's what a lot of people consider a hot fescue. It's got that fungus that really does not help cattle out a lot. It affects their body temperature is what it does, and circulation I guess that... I forget the name of that...

Host Kasey Brown:

Alkaloid?

Chad Woods:

Alkaloid, yeah. I'm probably about to get out of my wheelhouse on that. But that fungus is, it's not necessarily a good thing for the animals. It's great for the plant, 'cause it makes it really hardy. You can graze that stuff in the ground and get a little moisture back and it comes back.

            The problem is that it does raise the body temperature of the cows. So you see them in the ponds and the creeks trying to stay cool. It does not help with the reproduction. It does not help with weight gain. It's just really detrimental. I know they've put a figure of the billions what the Southeast loses every year to fescue. So being that we had the horse hay background, we used to raise orchardgrass for a lot of our customers because they needed something that was safe for mares.

            And the same effects for mares from that fescue so they have the same problem. So we couldn't get that to grow, so we've switched over to that novel endophyte and gave that a shot. And that has really changed our operation altogether. So in our area, most everybody, fall calves, September, October, turned the bull in December and January during those cold months. So they can get their cows bred. And we're doing the opposite of that, so we're calving in April and May and turning the bull in July. And everybody's wondering how the heck we're doing it. And that's the only thing that I can blame it on, is that novel endophyte. Those cows are out grazing every day, they're cool, they're breeding back good, the calves are doing well.

            We're small enough too, that we could make those changes. And if it worked, it worked, if it didn't, we could back up and kind of reset the whole operation. But just with my wife working in extension, she sees a lot of that information kind of coming down the pipe early and we're able to implement some of those things and get that ball rolling. But yeah, that novel endophyte has certainly helped our operation. It's really given us a lot of options and it's certainly has helped us out.

Host Kasey Brown:

Rob, you mentioned reproduction and fertility are kind of your highest selection criteria, right? Can you talk to us about that?

Rob Elder:

Well, the reproductive traits are double the importance of a growth trait. Growth traits are double the importance of a carcass trait. Don't have a live calf, you don't have anything. So we select for that heavily. But it's natural selection pretty much, we just let nature pretty much do it. Although we are selecting bulls that are really high in those traits. Not that we don't want an animal to grow, but that's secondary to reproductive traits for us.

Host Kasey Brown:

And you mentioned that you do have to use some alternative forages sometimes. Can you talk to that? Then you mentioned how a lot of times that doesn't affect your reproduction. What kind of alternative forges do you use on your operation?

Rob Elder:

Primarily right now, it's cornstalks. We have used some tough grass straw. We've used wheat straw, barley straw, grass seed straw. We even looked at some baled bean stocks, but there was too much dirt baled up with it, and the transportation cost went up. That does affect reproduction, but we're letting that happen pretty much on purpose to wash the cows out that won't make it long term. But that handles the depreciation on those cows. After they're six years old, market value drops like a rock. So we're trying to market the cows that are older than six, as butcher cows in the spring. And anything else we reread and sell the next winter.

Host Kasey Brown:

Talk to me about how you've sourced some of these other types of straws or hays. Do you grow them? Do you find them? And what kind of considerations go through your head of what makes this a good investment?

Rob Elder:

Well, that's a good question. How have we found it? I guess I got on the phone and started calling people. That's really it. And we've built a resource of different people. We know some of the farmers that we're buying it from. If they don't have something, they can put us in touch with other thing. But one of our primary sources has been a guy that does some hay and trucking, a lot of trucking. And he's around everybody and that's one of our primary resources. Everybody talks about networking, that has been valuable to us.

            How do we determine whether it's a good deal or not? Will it keep a cow alive? That's basically it, and do it cheap. That's primarily what I look at. It's not high class. Some of the other people doing the courses we're talking about, they eat less because the quality's poor. Yes, they do. But that's the way we're doing it because of cost.

Host Kasey Brown:

Eating less is still better than eating nothing. Right?

Rob Elder:

Yeah. I would just as soon have a cow that can look at the neighbor's haystack and stay fat. Just look at it.

Host Kasey Brown:

That would be the dream.

Rob Elder:

Yeah.

Host Kasey Brown:

Well, you shared some great numbers of how you pencil out a cost per cow, per day. Can you share some of those thoughts with us?

Rob Elder:

Okay. Well, we try to always run our costs. We want to know where we're at on everything. So this was for the 2021 year. We haven't gone through this year yet. We do have a budget, we're following it. Some of those costs are going to vary a little this year, and we may have to look at things. Primarily divide it. Our corn stocks are delivered at $80 a ton. It's $60 to purchase it, and $20 to get it delivered. So it's $80 delivered. You divide the $80 by 2,000, because there's 2,000 pounds in a ton, that comes to 4 cents per pound. We feed about 25 pounds per head per day. That's probably a little extra, but we let the waste go into the soil. That comes to let me see my numbers here, 75 cents a day.

            The alfalfa, we feed about five pounds. That we got delivered last year for $140 per ton. It was just good alfalfa, we didn't have it tested or anything. You divide that by 2,000 pounds, that's 7 cents per pound. Multiply that by five pounds, that's 35 cents per day. We do some fuel, and the wear and tear, oil, et cetera on our vehicle to do that with. It's just a pickup pulling a flatbed trailer primarily. We fill it up about once a week, that comes to about a hundred dollars. It's usually not a complete fuel, we don't completely fuel the tank up every time. So it's either three quarter, seven eights of the tank each fill up. That comes to $14.28 cents per day. Yeah, that gets us per day. We divide that, we run about 1,150 cows, that gets us to 1 cent.

            I didn't include any of the costs of the vehicle and trailer. There should be some cost, but on that, we use both year-round so the cost would be spread over the whole year. But I didn't include it. But I did include labor. Everybody's salaried on our place. And so you can say, well, that's you got that cost anyway, but we could be doing other things that we'd be doing it. So I just figured for purposes of this, even though our employees get different salaries, I just use $3,000 a month. Three people that's 9,000 divided by 30 days in a month, that's $300 per day. Takes about half a day to do that, so that's $150 per day. We divide that by 1,150 cows... We're running other, but that's the main cow herd, that's 13 cents per day. You add all that up, we're at $1.49 daily cost per head, per day, per cow.

Host Kasey Brown:

That's great. So since you've crunched the numbers, math is important in running a business, right?

Rob Elder:

Yes.

Host Kasey Brown:

When you have to find alternative forages or supplementation, do you compare it to this or is it just, what can I get that will feed my cows and is the best deal I can get?

Rob Elder:

A little of both. I primarily compare it to this, yes. The other feed sources, but I am aware, like this year I could have bought wheat straw just a touch cheaper, but it won't come as close to the cornstalks. And then we're also looking at what we're putting back into our soil, where those cattle are fed and the corn stocks will put more back into the soil.

Host Kasey Brown:

Excellent. So there's extra benefit from this.

Rob Elder:

Yes.

Host Kasey Brown:

Chad, you talked about a really cool opportunity for alternative feeds with your operation, can you tell us about that? I loved the rivalry situation you told us about.

Chad Woods:

Oh, with the Duke and Carolina basketball. Yeah. So the area of that we're in, so we're right next door to that big college basketball rivalry of Duke and Carolina. And just for anybody to know, I'm not a Carolina fan, so that kind of narrows it down. But we're in a large populated area and a lot of those folks like to drink craft beer. So we have the opportunity to get that spent brewers grain from those breweries. It's a byproduct that they have to get rid of. So it's either going into the landfill or some people utilize it for other types of feeds, chicken feeds or I've seen people bake it into dog biscuits and that kind of stuff, obviously on a small scale. But with our cattle, we can use quite a bit of that.

            So we work with three different breweries that are close by where I work. So we're able to transport that feed home pretty cheap. So basically I pick it up while I'm in town, bring it back. Occasionally I have to make a special trip, I try not to, and that keeps that feed cost down. But yeah, we're able to utilize that spent brewers grain. It's really high in protein, it's got good energy levels to it, it does have a lot of water in it because it is still wet, it's about 70% water. So if you kind of crunch the numbers out of a ton of feed, you've only got about 300 pounds of dry matter out of that. But they still do good on it. It's just labor intensive sometimes to handle that heavy grain we're talking about, that's kind of our workout program. But our fat cattle are the ones that get most of that. We feed a little bit of that to our cows. It'll go bad in the summertime. So storage can be an issue. So we'll try to feed it up before it goes bad.

            But that's been kind of a niche market for us close by. And that's something that's available to a lot of producers around. And maybe they can't get enough, I know Rob would probably have trouble getting enough brewers grain in to feed his cows at that price. But somebody small like me could do that with a pickup truck. So it's just some opportunities out there if somebody to be able to do that.

            And there's a lot of other feed sources in our area that's available. That just seems to work good for us. We're in an area where there's a lot of cotton and peanuts and that kind of stuff, so there's a lot of byproducts from that, that we could buy. But that brewer's grain just seems to work pretty well for us. It keeps it out of the landfill. We also have a beef business and some of those breweries have restaurants. So we're able to do the whole full circle deal so we get the grain and feed it through the cows and take it back to them in packages of beef. So it all works out.

Host Kasey Brown:

Now, forgive me for an elementary question, but can you guys walk me through the timeline of your year of forages? When do you usually graze? When do you usually supplement? When do you start planting your annuals? Talk me through your forage plan for the year in a big picture.

Chad Woods:

Sure. I'll start out, Rob, if you don't care. So we start out if we were going to start out... Where do you want us to start? What month do you want us to start?

Host Kasey Brown:

We just turned into February, let's start at the beginning of the year and we'll just do calendar year.

Chad Woods:

So in January we are wide open grazing fescue that we've stockpiled from back in the fall. We take our cattle off of that so it can can get some growth on it. So we usually run that up until late March. And then we're going to turn them on some winter annuals for a short while there. And while that winter annuals are being grazed, the fescue is growing back. So we're going to graze that fescue up until May or June. And then hopefully if we're getting some rain, that's the biggest thing is rainfall. We'll get those summer annuals planted, then we're grazing summer annuals during that time, that we've got that kind of forage slump with the fescue, when it's not really growing. That's probably its biggest downfall as it does not do well in hot weather, doesn't grow very good at all.

            And then coming into the fall, we actually feed most of our hay in the fall. Which is something that a lot of the folks that are stockpiling fescue have figured out, if we can get some winter annuals planted early enough, and we do have adequate rainfall, oats or something like that, we can graze. But if not, we'll supplement hay in that September, October range. It's dry typically in our neck of the woods. So we're feeding hay and not having to use our four-wheel drive tractor every day, not in the mud. So that helps out a lot. And then during that time, that fescue is growing. So we're stockpiling that fescue. If we do have adequate rainfall and fertilizer prices are reasonable, which they're not now, we'll apply some nitrogen, maybe 30 to 50 units of nitrogen on that fescue, kind of give it a little bump. And we try to get as much growth as we can and hold that back.

            And around December the first we start strip grazing that fescue. And what that does too, is it allows us to really utilize every bit of that fescue. They don't spot graze, they're not all over the place. It distributes that manure and that urine. And so we can allot them so many days of grazing. If I'm at home every day, I can move them every day. If I'm not, I can give them a week's worth of grass or whatever we need to do. And you can see that in those areas too. The next spring, if you've had to make that jump from a one-day rotation to a one-week rotation, you'll see the extra growth in that area. So it is kind of neat to be able to do that.

            And that's kind of offsetting some of those fertilizer costs. One of our big things is throughout, no matter what we're doing, we're trying to build that soil health. We're trying to cut out the fertilizer prices. Our two biggest expenses are fertilizer and winter feeding. So we've cut back a lot of our winter feeding cost, now we're trying to cut back the fertilizer cost. And then with the fertilizer like it is now, it's going to be interesting to see how this trend is going to go, but we're going to probably have a lot of ground that doesn't get any fertilizer this year. And we're going to hope and pray that the soil health kicks in, like the research says it will. And hopefully we can just grow some grass without it.

Rob Elder:

I'll start out about April 1st, if that's okay.

Host Kasey Brown:

Yeah.

Rob Elder:

Our cows have just barely started calving and they go out to grass on BLM allotments. They'll spend April and May, well, the bulk of them will. Some, the young cows, will already 1st of May, head to mountains on deeded ground there, and they'll finish calving there.

            First of June, we sort cattle. The bulk of them go to a forced allotment in the mountains. The later calving cows, summer and fall calving cows will stay on a different BLM allotment through the summer. Those cows that go on, most of the forest allotments will be gathered in October, and come into deeded ground and graze for a month and a half.

            The BLM cows will come in about the 1st of November and they'll graze for about a month. Roughly we try to extend it as long as we can, by the 15th, 10th to 15th of December, we've got to start feeding them some hay. Which is these corn stocks, roughly four months of that, in December, January, February, and March.

Host Kasey Brown:

And are those their primary source of feed or are you also supplementing with cake or anything else?

Rob Elder:

No.

Host Kasey Brown:

Okay.

Rob Elder:

Nope. The little bit of alfalfa and the corn stalks right now, that's what they're getting.

Host Kasey Brown:

Are there any tips that you would give somebody who's just at their wits end of, "I'm running out of pasture? What should I do?" You mentioned networking.

Rob Elder:

Yes.

Host Kasey Brown:

You could probably say that was your tip, but is there anything else that you'd recommend to somebody who's trying to figure out "what can I do to keep my cows?"

Rob Elder:

Know your numbers. Know your numbers and network. That's really what it boils down to.

Host Kasey Brown:

Perfect. Chad?

Chad Woods:

Yeah, absolutely. Knowing the capacity of your land. And during those drought conditions, know it for the good years and the bad, and if you see that bad year coming on, go ahead and prep for that. There's no worse feeling than having cattle that you can't get feed to. So it is a lot of planning, a lot of forethought about that, but yeah, just knowing what your land can produce. I'm sure Rob's probably the same way, if you get extra rainfall in the summertime you know you could probably leave him on a pasture for maybe a little longer or something like that, but just really knowing that stock and density, I guess, is the correct term for that. But just knowing that is going to pay dividends in the long run.

Host Kasey Brown:

Well, excellent gentlemen, I appreciate your time. As we wrap up, I like to end with some good news, because we all know the cattle business is really a people business. Can you guys tell me something good that's happened either personally or professionally, and we'll end this on a good note.

Rob Elder:

Our business is expanding. It's actually pretty healthy, everything considered. And our granddaughter's walking, so that's great.

Host Kasey Brown:

All right.

Chad Woods:

So yeah, I'm kind of like Rob. Our business is doing good, even though we're small, we're expanding. Able to keep that family farm together. And one of the great things too is we got these guys out of Idaho and Oregon to come down here to Texas. And I think this is the first time y'all been to the NCAA conference, right? So I think that's kind of cool. Got to meet a lot of new people down here as always and do that networking deal that we always do. But yeah, everything's good. Things could be worse. Family is safe and healthy and that's all we can hope for.

Host Kasey Brown:

Okay. Well those are perfect answers. Thank you again so much for your insight.

            Listeners, to get more information to help make Angus work for you. Check out the resources to our print Angus Beef Bulletin and digital Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA, in our show notes. We want to hear from you, let us know your ideas and comments at abbeditorial@angus.org. And be sure to rate this podcast and share this episode with any other profit-minded cattleman. Thanks for listening to Angus At Work.