Input prices dictate pasture management decisions by livestock operators | Land & Livestock Post

Kay Ledbetter Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Cow-calf and stocker operators find themselves in yet another period of high fertilizer and fuel prices and must make necessary management decisions concerning production targets, according to two longtime Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton.

Monte Rouquette, forage physiologist, and Gerald Smith, a clover breeder, both at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, said the rules for managing pastures and livestock systems are changing with increasing fertilizer and fuel costs.

“The energy crisis experienced in years past was just an appetizer compared to what cattle operators are experiencing now in forage-animal production,” Rouquette said. “They have experienced increased prices in fuel, fertilizers and feed ingredients, and now the costs of ‘doing business’ have caused many to rethink their operating strategies.”

Stocking management decisions

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Setting production targets, to manipulate forage utilization systems to enhance economic returns, and sustaining the soil-plant resources are still the name of the game, he said. But the process may be different under high input prices.

Stocking strategies and nutrient cycling have inseparable relationships, Rouquette said. There is an increased dependency on recycled nutrients in grazed pastures for forage production during unstable and increasing fertilizer, fuel and feed grain costs.

“Management strategies are personal and need to be ‘zip code-specific’ in the pasture assessments of forage employment, hay, overseeding, fertilization, that must be made,” he said. “Concurrent, critical decisions must be made for the class of beef cattle used, their efficiency of production, and returns based on pasture occupancy and weight of the animals.”

Cow-calf and/or stocker operations on pastures requiring ongoing management decisions to adjust for seasonal and total forage production availability, animal performance expectations, wintering costs and other operating expenses, Rouquette said. In general, rainfall and temperature fluctuations and soil nutrient status are the biggest factors controlling forage production.

“Your stocking rate adjustments dictate requirements for fertilizer, hay and/or supplemental feed to meet animal performance expectations,” he said. “For cow-calf producers, wintering costs associated with hay and supplements needed to maintain cow condition for calving and rebreeding are responsible for a substantial part of the 12-month cow costs.

“Thus, fertilizer management during the summer months, hay production or purchase, and inclusion of winter annual pastures require primary consideration during times of escalating input prices.”

Fertilizing for feeding expectations

Rouquette said in response to increased fertilizer prices, producers may choose an array of options. However, these strategies will likely include one of the following: eliminate all fertilizer, reduce fertilizer to minimum applications, or continue with moderate fertilization applications.

Smith added that selecting cloves to eliminate the use of nitrogen fertilization requires soil-site specific locations regarding drainage, etc. In addition, a soil test in advance of planting offsets risks associated with low levels of phosphorus and soil pH, for example.

The economic dilemma for producers is that there is no transition period to adapt to the new pasture-beef production cost paradigm, he said. With no likely price reductions in fuel, fertilizer and feed grains in either the short-term or long-term future, every cash input must be evaluated and scrutinized for potential returns.

Grass production is nitrogen dependent. The basic pasture forages in Texas, as well as in the most grazing lands of the world, are warm-season perennial grasses. These forages include Bermuda, Bahia and Dallis grasses and numerous other introduced and native species.

In many areas of Texas, nitrogen-containing fertilizers have been a regular part of hay and pasture production for livestock. The immediate and perhaps long-term extended changes in fertilization of forage for pasture and/or hay will depend on numerous factors. These include the price of cattle; forage requirements for soil nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium and time to meet pasture and/or hay needs; sustainable economic stocking rate with moderate, minimum or no fertilization; and alternative land use without livestock.

Find the right path

As forage-cattle producers move into the next paradigm of input costs, the secrets for success are closely tied to “using forages that produce and animals that perform,” Rouquette said. “This mandates that every aspect of the forage-cattle operation must be critically evaluated.”

For many operators who choose to eliminate most, if not all, fertilizers, the long-term experimentation at Texas A&M AgriLife Research-Overton suggests nutrient cycling under grazing is a valuable asset for forage production in pastures. And some grass species composition changes will occur once nitrogen fertilizer is removed for prolonged durations.

Rouquette said some of the checklist management strategies that counter increased fertilizer, fuel and feed prices include the following:

Create a pasture management plan that is firm but flexible.

Implement a fertilization strategy via a soils test and need.

In many situations, the most cost-effective fertilizer strategy is to apply one or two nitrogen applications at 50 to 60 pounds per acre per application. However, soil levels of potassium and pH are linked to the sustainability of hybrid Bermuda grasses.

Add legumes to the pasture system after soil test and assessing soilH.

Use broiler litter as a nutrient source.

Increase efficiency of forage utilization with timely stocking and/or electric fencing for additional pastures.

Make hay from pastures at any time practical, and eliminate exclusive hay meadows.

Purchase hay based on nutrient analyzes and weight.

Make strategic, timely herbicide applications.

Maintain accurate, up-to-date cattle records for culling options.

Enhance weaning percent, weaning weight and/or weight at the time of sales.

Alter weaning schedule; retain ownership options.

Critically assessed supplementation strategies, product cost and supplement based on extra gain conversion.

Market cattle proactively.

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