Pasture is a crop; but it's too often treated as an orphan in Missouri agriculture. Some landowners get it. People who learned management-intensive grazing at University of Missouri grazing schools have a jumpstart.
Still, driving down the road, you see many unproductive pastures and underutilized forages. Those represent lost acres and lost opportunities.
Controlled grazing can add an easy 30% more pounds of beef per acre. Left to their own, on continuous grazing, cattle waste about two-thirds of the forage we grow. With present price of beef and better prices in the futures market and in the four-year outlooks, there is profit potential waiting in the grasslands.
If there was ever a time to make a resolution about boosting farm income from grass, January 2012 is it.
There are good signs. The MU Crop Management Conference in December offered pasture sessions for certified crop advisers and advanced farmers who attended. This will take some getting used to, but it is part of the soil and water conservation mode of thinking.
Earlier, the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council (MFGC) had a terrific lineup of the greybeards on its 25th anniversary. Those retired, or close to it, shared wisdom. Some will never retire from their mission.
For example Joe Bouton, the productive plant breeder from Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Okla., reminded us that grass does what it was intended to do. It saved the soil after the Dust Bowl days when land that should never have been plowed was in attempts to grow crops. Let us not forget hard-earned lessons. Bouton reminded the MFGC audience of the impact that tall fescue has in saving soil in Missouri. Fescue-covered hills protect our soils. On top of that original mission, we have grown one of the largest cow herds in the nation on that grass.
We soon may learn that Missouri returned to the No. 2 spot nationally, as Oklahomans sold cows in their severe and continuing drought. (But, we're also depopulating as we plant more crops into grasslands.)
In just two years, 2008 to 2010, according to economist Scott Brown we've converted 1.4 million acres from grass and hay to row crops. To look at a bright possibility, cropping kills some toxic fescue on land that can be planted to non-toxic new varieties.
At the MU Crop Management Conference, Craig Roberts, MU Extension forage specialist, did the math. Replacing toxic fescue with clean forages could boost stocker calf grazing gains and boost cow conception rates. That adds nearly $200 million annually to farm income. In his calculation, and you can do this for your farm, he added a half pound a day of growth on stocker calves. That's conservative.
Reputable and replicated studies at many land-grant universities show that switching away from endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 fescue to non-toxic forages, novel-endophyte fescue, or orchardgrass, consistently boosts daily gains on grass from 1 pound a day to 1.7 pounds a day.