While most of the world has secluded itself in isolation, across the Midwest spring rains are producing a high volume of nutritious forage critical to beef producers’ success, especially in challenging market conditions.
During the Southwest Missouri Spring Forage Conference, Hartville, Missouri, rancher Steve Freeman shared his tactics for getting the most value out of the “spring flush” of forage.
“For me, the spring flush is when you’re begging for just a little bit more grass in the early spring and then in April you start to get more sunshine and warmer days,” Freeman said, “and before you know it, the grass is so tall you lose your steers in the weeds.”
For Freeman, the “spring flush” is the 60- to 90-day period of time that European cool season forages, like fescue, produce their peak grass payouts. Finding the balance between having adequate cattle to make use of excess forage during the “spring flush” while avoiding overstocking in the summer is a strategy Freeman said has greatly increased his herd’s profitability.
“Overgrazing in April is much different than overgrazing in July in dry weather,” Freeman said. “We will graze the grass fairly short in April, but we’re not going to graze it as short in June and July during the offseason.”
Freeman’s operation is primarily focused on efficient cow-calf production on diversified fescue pastures harvested through rotational grazing and stockpiling.
“In 2003, we sold our hay equipment and all of a sudden we had a tremendous amount of grass, which meant the opportunity to bring in a lot more animals,” Freeman said. “We also had the realization that these dry spells we go through in the Ozarks are more common and normal that the perfect years we seem to be managing for.”
The cow-calf portion of Freeman’s operation takes up 60 to 70 percent of the recommended stocking rate for the land available to him. The low stocking rate is a drought–management technique Freeman implemented after too many hard summers where haying or supplementation was necessary.
In times with excess forage growth, like the “spring flush,” Freeman utilizes his grass assets by matching increased cow nutritional needs with times of good grass production, keeping “buffer” stock and managing forage for best growth and later use.
Natural Spring Calving
By calving in April and May, Freeman is able to match a natural calving cycle with increased forage production to make use of his available forage without adding additional stock that may not be supportable without supplementation in lesser forage situations.
“The beauty of calving this time of year is that when the grass really starts taking off, the cows’ nutritional needs are starting to pick up,” Freeman said. “If you do it right, it works in perfect harmony.”
While cows are calving and during early lactation, their nutritional needs nearly double and the effect is similar to adding cows to the overall herd. With plenty of grass to go around, Freeman said his goal was to make best use of his ground while also sticking more closely to cattle’s natural breeding cycle.
“Cows are naturally long-day breeders,” Freeman said. “The goal going into breeding season is to make sure cows have long days, lots of sunshine and they are increasing in body condition — it’s very similar to flushing sheep.”
Freeman’s practice isn’t news to most experienced cattlemen, but it is one that is difficult to implement on endophyte-infected fescue in the heat of summer.
“We’ve seen some real wrecks with people trying to emulate this system,” Freeman said. “Without an alternative forage to Kentucky 31 fescue grass in the summer, this breeding system will fail.”
Lack of forage diversity and heat stress can lead to cows absorbing their fetuses early or bulls going temporarily sterile. In addition to varied forage options, cattle with some genetic heat and fescue-toxicity tolerance can thrive in this system.
“The other thing we’re getting is some heat-tolerant animals and genetics that can help us in this area,” Freeman said. “But one of the biggest factors I’ve seen is a new push for native grasses — which I wish I could breed my cows on because I feel like if we were utilizing native pasture, there would be a lot more cattle in the Ozarks that could breed in the summer months.”
In the early days of Freeman implementing this breeding system, his breeding rate hovered around 45 percent. Through heavy heat- and fescue-tolerance selection, he found uses for his open or culled cows that greatly changed the profitability of his operation.
Built-In Stocking Buffers
Freeman’s breeding target is to have 95 percent of his cows calve in the first 30 days of his designated calving season. Cows and first-calf heifers are given 45 days with the bulls.
If they are not bred during this time, they are re-categorized as open or cull cows and are given a second chance to breed outside Freeman’s target breeding season. This “open” cow group is used as a forage and finance “buffer” — in cases of drought or high cull-cow prices, the now-bred cows are sold at heavier weights and higher prices than they would have brought if sold straight after the breeding season.
“Over the years we’ve sold pot loads of ‘open’ cows that didn’t breed on our schedule, because we realized if we could get an open cow bred and on quality spring forage, we could sell her for $800 rather than $400,” Freeman said. “It’s been a successful practice for us because it helps utilize our forage and provides a stocking buffer for us during the spring flush.”
The same stance is used with yearlings — the animals are kept to higher weights while they help increase stocking rates during the “spring flush” and then are sold at the first sign of drought or high market values.
Much of Freeman’s operation depends on high forage quality and efficient use of available grass. Because Freeman breeds during a difficult time of year and doesn’t often use supplementation, forage diversity is an important aspect of his business plan.
On fescue pastures, Freeman manages growth by judiciously clipping pastures, while allowing some pastures to sit and stockpile for dormant season grazing. Johnsongrass, red clover and giant ragweed are critical additional forages that intermingle with his fescue pastures during the summer breeding season.
“Giant ragweed is one of the highest testing forages we’ve had using a Brix test,” Freeman said. “It comes back three times in the summer and produces tremendously.”
Because Freeman is focused on avoiding overstocking, knowing when to rotate pastures has been a critical point in his operation. As the only salaried on-farm employee, Freeman’s wife Judy is in charge of making grazing decisions and moving the cattle into new paddocks. Freeman said her method of distinguishing when to move the cows has been essential to their operation.
“When my wife Judy moves our cows, she looks at their rumens and the roundness of their belly,” Freeman said. “When she moves them, their rumens are convex rather than concave and that has made a big difference for us performance wise because the cattle are eating in the new pasture like they have already had a large buffet rather than being hungry and immediately chowing down.”
During the “spring flush,” those rotations happen more quickly than at any other point in the year as cattle fill up on the nutrient-rich forage.
“We rotate over our entire farm really quickly in the spring,” Freeman said. “The cows are given the best grass we have and are moved every day so we can defoliate as much as possible and stimulate growth.”
Freeman said learning to use the “spring flush” to his advantage took time and flexibility as forage growth varies from year to year. Over time, being aware of the forage cycle and matching his production goals to his land sustainability goals ultimately also increased profitability.