Year-round, Corn Belt grazing

Cliff Schuette employs annuals and fescue in 12-month beef grazing program

Breese, Illinois — “If you’re paying for the ground year-round, you might as well try to graze it year-round.” While Cliff Schuette’s rationale may be sound, this grass-farming grail is simply not attainable for northern graziers.

Then again, Cliff and a few others like him are showing that perhaps year-round grazing — or at least something very close to it — is not quite the mirage many graziers made it out to be. In recent years Corn Belt graziers have been employing annual crops and stockpiling tall fescue in successful efforts to graze at least some stock 12 months a year, thus cutting feeding costs to levels far below conventional norms for their areas.

By no means is Cliff Schuette the northernmost year-round grazier. Farming 50 miles east of St. Louis, Cliff’s typical growing season is long enough to allow turnips to add dry matter until Dec. 1, and cereal rye to have grown enough for grazing by April 1. Autumns are warm enough to allow stockpiling of fescue in quantities large enough to provide a relatively large number of lactating beef cows with grazing through the first two to three months of each calendar year.

Then again, last winter Cliff’s cows — with calves at side — kept on grazing fescue through up to 10 inches of snow, or about 10 inches more than was on the ground 300 miles to the north. He says chances for success with extended grazing start with the mindset that it can be done, and finish with the management skills required for completing the task.

At minimum, Cliff and other Corn Belt grazing proponents are trying to return livestock to a farming culture that, aside from a few big dairy and hog factories, has lost contact with animals. By drastically slashing feed costs through extended-season grazing, these leaders are trying to show their cash-cropping neighbors that even a low-margin cow-calf grazing enterprise can add profit when inserted to the conventional corn-soybean rotation.

Cliff calculates that he is averaging five tons of dry matter produced from turnips, oats and cereal rye seeded into standing corn, in addition to harvesting 160 bushels/acre of corn. Such productivity, along with the fact that most of this post-corn production is being grazed rather than mechanically harvested, allowed him to keep a beef cow for an average of $128.35 in 1999, according to University of Illinois figures. That compared to the Illinois state average of $313.66.

“Five years ago, I would have told you that none of this is possible,” Cliff says. “Now I believe that I’m set up to be profitable in the worst cattle years.”

At maximum, these graziers are probing the northern boundaries of year-round grazing. Cliff’s vision is that modifications of some of the tactics he’s using could allow virtual year-round grazing to become a reality into the middle reaches of the Corn Belt — and beyond.

“I think we can go as far north as (Interstate) 80 with year-round grazing,” he says.

Cliff manages three farms totaling about 900 acres of row crop, pasture and timber ground owned by his cousins. When he started in 1996 he bought his dad’s half of the operation – mainly Angus-Hereford crosses — and continuously grazed the pastures while selling cash grain. “I did that for one year, and could see it wasn’t going to pan out. The overhead was going to eat me up,” Cliff says. He started going to grazing conferences.

This year he worked 350 acres in a corn-soybeans-wheat/clover rotation, including 195 acres that combined row crops and grazing. All corn, soybeans, wheat and silage are custom harvested. Next year the cousins intend to rent out the acres that aren’t grazed. There are 220 acres of perennial tall fescue pasture — 160 in endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 and red clover, and 60 planted to a mix of an improved ladino clover with endophyte-altered “Max-Q” tall fescue.

This year he calved 152 cows and heifers, now primarily based on Angus and Simmental genetics. Sixty were calved last spring, with first-calf heifers starting indoors on Feb. 1, and 92 on pasture beginning Sept. 1.

It is by no means a grass-finishing operation. Steers and the bottom one-third of heifers are weaned at 45 days to four months at weights ranging from 125 to 400 lbs., and placed on a custom feedlot ration of whole corn and corn gluten pellets. The calves reach 1,000 to 1,400-pound finishing weights at an average of 13 to 14 months, with four to six head — most grading choice — killed weekly. The same cousins who own the land also operate six area grocery stores, and they pay Cliff equal to the top weekly price registered at a local sales barn, with a standard 60% carcass dressing percentage.

While the meat is largely made from grain, brood cows and 60 replacement heifers graze virtually all of their rations. By calving, heifers have seen no grain other than what they find in corn stubble. Cliff says 45 cows from the spring-calved herd have not been fed stored rations over the past four years.

Weaning weights are impressive: This year his spring group of heifers, weighing an average of 1,095 lbs. at weaning time, produced calves with a 205-day adjusted weaning average of 568 lbs. without creep feed. “One of my primary goals is to wean 50% of the weight of the cow,” Cliff says.

He says fall calf weights generally average 25 lbs. lighter, and that cows nursing heifer calves all winter often lose about one body condition score grazing 13% protein fescue under sometimes taxing conditions. But Cliff actually prefers fall calving because it produces finished steers during the normal winter market price peaks, and the quality and quality of fall forages produce his most cost-effective grazing of the year. With the kind of grazing he can provide at this time, Cliff can bring lactating beef cows into the winter with plenty of body condition to withstand the coldest weather.

He admits it’s not a simple task. Cliff, who sells seed for part of his living, must choose from up to five grazing options each fall. Much depends on the whims of weather. “It is mind-boggling,” Cliff admits. “But I like the challenge.”

Spring green-up is a good place to start. Usually by the first of April grazing can commence on cereal rye that was aerial-seeded to corn late the previous summer. Within a couple of weeks the fescue will have grown enough to provide another grazing choice.

Soon the rye is growing with a tremendous spring flush, and Cliff needs to control it by sending almost all of his stock there. About a quarter of the fescue/clover pasture is harvested for the silo in May, and by the end of that month the rye is done with its growth.

Through the summer there are two grazing choices: the fescue/clover mixes, and pure red clover stands from seed interseeded to winter wheat during the March thaw. Fescue grazing is largely reserved for periods with daytime heat indices above 85 degrees F. With a high percentage of infected fescue, Cliff tries to provide shade on these hot days. To promote even dispersal of manure, where possible he’s located paddock watering points on the end opposite the main shade. He feels that shade would not be needed if he didn’t have the infected fescue, or if he farmed just a ways further north.

On cooler days — often a total of two or three weeks during the main summer stretch — cow-calf pairs graze red clover in row crop fields without any shade. They graze in the newly harvested wheat stands, and in fields that had been in wheat the previous year. Cliff says he gets excellent performance from the clover grazing, and that these stands also take just enough pressure off the fescue to get him through the summer slump without needing to provide stored feed. Surplus clover is baled, stored, and sold to local dairy farmers at premium prices in the winter.

Come August, fescue paddocks start receiving 50 to 75 units of nitrogen as they are grazed off, and these stands are then rested and stockpiled for late-fall and winter grazing. Also in August, Cliff hires an airplane to seed turnips, spring oats and cereal rye to standing corn.

It can be wonderful stuff. When the cows are turned in after the corn comes off (normally in October) there is often a ton of dry matter awaiting them. While they often go for the oats first, Cliff says that the turnips are what provide most of the fall tonnage if the right variety is used (he currently likes “Appin”). When grazed right – occupation periods of three days or less, with tops grazed to within a couple inches of the soil surface — in a good year this seeding can provide Cliff with three grazing rounds and two tons of fall dry matter utilization.

This isn’t foolproof. Corn chemical programs need to be modified, and there are a lot of unknowns. Cliff suggests asking a local farm chemical dealer for recommendations. He has seen intense weed pressure, and been forced to apply a contact herbicide.

Cliff spends up to $40/acre for quality seed and the aerial seeding, yet he may only realize a 50% stand. This year he had trouble scheduling seeding, as local planes were booked solid spraying soybean aphid infestations. Weather can also be a big problem. For instance, a wet spring delayed corn planting until June 2 this year, and the corn didn’t come off until early November. He thus won’t get more than one or two rotations through the turnips this fall. An inch of rain forces him to move stock to fescue sod for a day or two, and bigger rains like the five-incher he got this November forces even longer vacations away from the turnips.

But at least in a combined row crop-grazing system, Cliff says his aerial seeding risks are worth the benefits: “You almost have to have a total failure at this to lose money compared to feeding stored feed.” Fescue and red clover also provide fall grazing options. Cliff says he’s yet to suffer bloat problems grazing pure clover stands (without any bloat preventative) in the fall.

By January 1 the oats and turnips have begun losing their quality. Cow-calf pairs take a final pass through, and dry stock are brought in to strip-graze residuals, including turnip bulbs. From January through March, stockpiled, strip-grazed fescue provides the majority of cattle feed. Snow is seldom a problem here, but ice can be, Cliff says. He tries to plan winter grazing for pastures located near frost-free paddock watering centers.

Usually he runs a bit short of pasture in late February and March, and some cattle need to be fed in confinement until the rye returns in April. Cliff is thinking that he should instead feed his cows in August, and rest his fescue pastures to allow dry matter to accumulate enough to provide more grazing in late winter.

Should he quit the row crops, and move to all permanent pastures? Cliff isn’t completely opposed to the idea. His permanent pasture ground is more profitable, and Cliff figures he could employ summer annuals as summer and fall complements. “There are a lot of exciting things that can be grazed,” he says.

One reason he stays with row crops is that he has access to free hog manure. “If had to go to town to buy the fertilizer (for row crops), I would be all grass,” Cliff says.

Cliff also likes the market diversity that corn and beans offer to the beef sales, albeit at low margins. He says his soybean yields seem to have been improved by having cattle on the land: “In my opinion there is an unknown benefit both with the hoof action, and the fact that these crops are putting their roots down into the soil. The soil just seems to be looser when the soybeans go in.”

The overall quality and production of the row crop/pasture rotation is also hard to ignore. In addition to the grain yields — this year 161-bushel corn (nearly 30 bushels above the county average), 50-bushel soybeans, 60-bushel wheat — there is the five tons of yield he gauges from the oat/turnip/rye overseeding. Cliff figures that a dairy farmer in his area could harvest seven dry matter tons of corn silage and, with the corn being taken off several weeks earlier, realize an extra four to six tons of grazing from the overseeded mix. He also views this mix, along with corn stubble and the odd ear of dropped corn, as being nearly perfect brood cow feed.

Part of the reason for staying with row crops is a combination of psychology and sociology. Going to all grass and perhaps switching over to stocker grazing might be a bit much for his neighbors to take. “I hate to be too far out in left field, because if I am I won’t get more people to cross the line, and get that next generation into grazing,” Cliff explains. “I want to show people that they can maybe convert some of their row crops to pasture. The way to grow that concept is to keep the row crops in the rotation.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t be making some moves in the fairly near future. Cliff and his cousins intend to start selling his beef under its own label. Cliff says he also may investigate whether there is a market for “grass-fed” beef in the St. Louis area.

In the meantime, he is excited about the possibilities of year-round grazing, both for himself, and other Corn Belt farmers who are struggling with tight margins and cropping systems that may not be sustainable. Cliff says he has yet to figure things out well enough to truly graze all of his cattle 365 days a year. “Technically, I’m not yet year-round grazing,” he notes.

But he’s close. Very close.