Lakota (copy)

A Devon cow grazes ample grass on the rolling fields of Lakota Ranch in northern Culpeper County.

At a Virginia Cooperative Extension educational program held at the Rapidan Firehall in March 2005, Graze 300 VA was first used as the program’s title. Early March was chosen to show producers, most of whom were still feeding hay, another way to winter cattle. Besides the indoor program talking about grass and cattle, fencing and fertilizer, producers were taken to a nearby farm run by a profit-driven guy who figured out how to graze his cattle beyond the end of the growing season.

Today and we find some 30 Virginia Extension Agents using this program as part of their effort with producers, helping them realize the potential economic benefit found from a longer grazing season. The longest grazing season in our case studies (year-round), shows a profit, but not nearly as high as a grazing season of 300 days—about 50 percent more profitable by comparison. In Virginia, a number of large herd examples support this finding, as does work by Dr. Greg Halich in Kentucky. You would think year-round would be best, but the stocking rate is so low the numbers never add up when compared to 300 days, which supports a larger herd. And, as these animals are profitable and there are more of them, the total net return is higher when hay is fed for about 60 days.

Hay is the largest cost of any grazing operation—economists say 50 to 75 percent of total cost—and the first place to start to improve profitability. During times of high prices, it matters little what you do—but such days are behind us, so now is a good time to tighten up if you seek more profit from your grazing livestock. Feeding less hay is supported by stocking rates of multiple acres per cow-and-calf pair and by timely rainfall, adequate soil fertility and a willing manager. In Virginia, 3 acres per pair will support grass accumulation.

With this kind of stocking rate, grass accumulates during the growing season. If it rains in time in early fall, grass will stockpile even more for the winter grazing days needed to get past January. New Zealanders speak of a feed wedge, an inventory carried not in the barn but on pasture. Allowing the grass to get ahead of you is one way to put it, but instead of a negative, it turns out to be positive when seeking more days of winter grazing. There may be some worry this feed will not keep, or will weather too much to be of sufficient nutritional value. Some grasses do not stockpile well: graze these first.

Fescue, a favorite of winter grazers in the U.S. fescue belt, has a shelf-life compared to other grasses, and supports winter grazing. In early winter it will make a dry cow fat and in late winter she will maintain on it. Often, stockpile is the best feed on the farm, even when compared to most hay.

A short summary of Graze 300 would be to stock your pastures so that grass can accumulate, to have fencing that puts you in control of grazing intervals, to have water access in support of your management, and plan on about 60 days of hay feeding. These things will allow you to carry more animals and accumulate more total net return from your grazing herd. For more information visit https://ext.vt.edu/agriculture/graze-300.html to see our videos, to read more about the agents involved, and to see if this profit-focused approach to producing livestock is best for your operation.

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Carl C. Stafford is a Senior Extension Agent with the Culpeper County Virginia Cooperative Extension Office specializing in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Animal Science.