The profit key: working within your farm

By Jon Bansen

Monmouth, Oregon—At the latest American Forage and Grasslands Council meeting, the buzz was about increasing profitability by extending the grazing season. Although one piece of the puzzle, it’s also true that increased days on pasture can come at a high price if soils and plant health are degraded.

In reality, the true profits lie with optimizing a farm’s total feed production, with an eye on putting as much forage as possible into the animal through managed grazing. There are no instructions for putting this puzzle together, as each of our farms is unique in its soil types, weather patterns, topography, irrigation potential and land base.

Each of us must identify the strengths and weaknesses of our own farms and then develop a strategy for fitting different species of plants and (sometimes) animals into the system that will optimize profits.

Start with soil fertility

Most all of our farms could increase feed production through better soil fertility. Too many dairy farmers rely on manure as their only fertility input, and most are lacking calcium. A trial at California State University-Chico showed that adding calcium and some needed micronutrients increased both pasture tonnage and quality. More importantly, it showed the applications produced a net profit. Soil and (more importantly) forage tests are needed on a regular basis to guide decisions on fertility inputs.

Soil fertility — or the lack thereof — greatly influences the species that will grow in the sward. If your soil pH is at 5, it becomes an exercise in futility to continually plant species that do well above 6. While many “native” and lower production species thrive in lower pH soils, most high-producing and palatable pasture forages like a pH between 6-7.

Years ago, our farm’s soils lacked calcium and had low pH. Annual applications of lime over six years increased forage production, but even more importantly forage quality. Three years ago we started applying sulfur each spring in the form of gypsum and boron. We’ve seen increased legume vitality and improved overall pasture quantity and quality, which has allowed us to reduce grain feeding.

Increased fertility has also allowed us to slow our summer rotation to 34 days from the previous 16. Total forage production has increased, which is another reason we’ve been able to reduce grain feeding. While forage height at grazing has increased, the additional white clover in the stand keeps the quality stable while providing much-needed fiber for the cows.

Some members of our grazing group say this is too slow a rotation and that pasture growth rates are suffering. But these producers also wonder why they seem to produce much more grass than their cows seem to be utilizing. The lack of utilization is mostly due to feeding cows grass that is too low in fiber and much too high in protein, resulting in much of the grass passing through the cow and out the back end as manure.

And where do annual forages fit in this puzzle? While much has been written lately about annuals filling a need on many farms lacking rainfall, they can come at a cost. Working the soil comes at the cost of fuel and equipment, as well as soil fertility. The soil organic matter that holds onto our nutrients is damaged every time soil is turned over. Annuals can also uptake large amounts of nitrogen, and nitrogen is the biggest challenge for we organic growers in maintaining optimum production. Before planting, it is important to do the math on providing adequate nitrogen to any annual forage. After figuring the farming and nitrogen costs, annuals may not be as profitable as first seems.

It is much more cost effective to plant and maintain perennial stands where adequate summer moisture is available. We irrigate, and we use annuals only when renovating pastures. They are very useful in combating unwanted species in a perennial stand. Usually we will graze the pasture until late May, plant sudangrass, graze until September, and then plant to a perennial stand of grasses and clover.

Legumes are important for conventional graziers and essential for organic producers. Our hayfields with at least 50% legumes yield half again more forage than fields under 20% legumes, with fewer fertilizer inputs and better palatability. Lengthening the grazing rotation greatly reduces the chances of bloat with such high legume percentages.

Annual legumes are also extremely effective as green manure. As we have added land but not cows, green manure crops are important on rented acres that were previously abused and where manure is not as available. In transitioning this land to organic production, last year we planted an annual crop that we rented out as sheep pasture and then let re-grow before tilling in the residual.

This year, instead of first grazing the annuals, we’ll work them into the soil as early as possible to prepare for planting a mix of perennial legumes. These will be taken as silage next spring and then grazed by weaned calves. The strategy is to build soil organic matter while providing some feed for winter and parasite-free grazing for young stock. I have also tried summer fallow, and while this also does well in reducing unwanted grass species and weed populations, green manure crops are much better at boosting soil fertility.

Optimizing nutrients

Nutrient management is another issue. Since most farms will have cows indoors for a portion of the winter, how we store and utilize the nutrients coming out the back end will have a substantial effect on our yearly profits. The key to optimizing these nutrients is to set up a system where they can be used during the growing season and applied in a cost-effective manner. Too many farms apply all their stored nutrients before spring planting or after fall harvest. Both systems treat manure as waste instead of a valuable resource for the bottom line.

We store the milking herd’s winter manure in a lagoon, while our heifer manure is in a dry stack. Our lagoon is tied to an irrigation system with a reel gun that can deliver nutrients to all acres grazed by the cows. The heifer manure is stacked to compost, and it is turned a couple of times before being spread on the hayfields. Using straw instead of wood shavings makes this compost much more valuable as a soil amendment.

We have seen great variables in production based on winter pasture management. Since slowing our rotation, we have much more feed available to the cows going into the fall months. By the time frost comes in mid October, we have gone from having two weeks of feed in front of the cows to more than a month’s supply. Pastures given the longer rest periods can be grazed down late into the fall without hurting the next spring’s growth, but pastures grazed low and repeatedly on a fast rotation into the late fall will suffer the following spring, and set-stocked pastures fare even worse in terms of reduced production next spring.

And I don’t like sacrifice pastures in wet conditions: The cows get little feed, nutrients are lost to leaching and soil structure is damaged at a cost to future production. While this can work on frozen ground, be sure to get the cows off when the thaw comes to protect soil health, and ultimately forage production.

Finally, all of these factors mean little or nothing to the bottom line of the farm without proper grazing management. Setting the farm up with good lanes, adequate water tanks and flexible fencing will allow efficient grazing management that harvests forage in a timely manner.

Along with everything else, such grazing management will help your farm optimize production at maximum profit. It’s up to you to come up with the pieces for completing your own puzzle.

Jon Bansen milks cows on an organic farm near Monmouth, Oregon.