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The Cow/Calf Manager

Livestock Update, September 2000

John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

This article marks the beginning of my forth year at Virginia Tech. Through contact with producers and personal observation over the past three years, I have come to some conclusions about the cow/calf business in Virginia. First, it is alive and well. Second, we have many good operations. Third, it is undergoing rapid change. Finally, there is a great deal of missed opportunity still out there. One producer I know says he believes that there is $100 per cow that producers don't receive due to mismanagement of the cowherd. I agree with him!

Presently, we have 661,000 beef cows in Virginia. With proper management of existing resources we could support 800,000 to over 1 million beef cows. Over the next several months, "The Cow/Calf Manager" will focus on a different aspect of management. The primary management areas for increased productivity and profitability are:

  1. Pasture and forages
  2. Facilities
  3. Nutrition programs and evaluation
  4. Reproductive management
  5. Genetic Selection and breeding systems
  6. Herd Health Programs
  7. Marketing
  8. Cost control

Several areas are already being covered in related articles such as Marketing in Bill McKinnon's "The Cattle Business" or Genetic Selection and Breeding Systems in a new series by Scott Greiner. So, I'll stick to the other areas.

Pasture and Forage Management

Our greatest assets in the cow/calf operation are our pastures and hayland. Properly managed they can reduce our feed costs and increase productivity, but if poorly managed they can cost us more than we realize.

Lime and fertilizer. All pastures should be soil tested every three years. Lime needs to be applied to keep soils at pH 6.0 to 7.0. Fertilizer will provide little to no response if soil pH is below 5.4. Lime can be applied any time of year, but fall or early winter is usually the best time because it gives the lime a chance to increase the pH before the growing season starts. Response to lime is not as rapid as response to fertilizer because it takes time for the chemical reaction that changes pH to occur. Cattle can remain on limed pastures if ag lime or ground limestone is used.

Fertilizer dollars should be spent first on phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O). Increasing these nutrients enhances grass growth and makes a favorable soil environment for growing clovers. Just adding P and K to mountain pastures in Virginia resulted in a 41% increase in pasture yield or over 1000 lbs. more dry forage per acre.

Nitrogen fertilization should be reserved for hayland, stockpiled pasture and pastures with little legumes. The amount of N needed per acre varies with the crop and soil type but generally is 50 to 150 lbs. of N per acre. Split applications of fertilizer during the growing season results in increased yields.

Organic sources of fertilizer, such as poultry litter, should be used when possible. These fertilizers will increase the organic matter in the soil, which will increase the water holding capacity of the soil. In addition, the N is released more slowly and steadily.

Clovers. All Virginia pastures should include a sizable portion of legumes. Once legumes become over 25 percent of the stand they can supply all the nitrogen needed by the pasture. Clovers are easily frost seeded in late winter. Adding clovers to your pastures decreases your fertilizer cost while increasing the productivity and feed value of the pasture.

Control of brush or weeds. Many Virginia pastures would benefit from some form of weed control. Clipping is effective in most cases, but for multiflora rose or thistles chemical control is needed. Fall is the best time to spray thistles followed by early spring. At these times, the thistles are still in the rosette stage and are easily killed by a mix of 2-4D and BanvelTM. Multiflora rose should be spray in early summer just as they start to bloom. Some of the new good mutilfora rose control products include CrossbowTM and AllyTM among others. Many other problems such as cedars and broomstraw are indicator of low fertility. Large multiflora rose, cedars, and hawthorns may need the chainsaw treatment. Too many productive pastures in Virginia have been lost or their productivity reduced due to neglect.

Grazing management. All Virginia cattle operations need to practice some form of rotational grazing. This means you should have anywhere from 4 to 12+ pastures depending on how often you rotate. Rotational grazing allows the plants to recover from defoliation (grazing) before they are grazed again. This rest results in better root formation and more forage production per acre. In addition, cattle use the grass more efficiently because less grass is trampled or fouled. Ideally, pastures should have 20 to 40 days rest depending on the season.

Lack of water systems is a major barrier to increasing the number of pastures. Both NRCS and the state of Virginia have some cost share available for water systems. The NRCS field staff is very good at assisting you in designing watering systems. Using existing springs, heavy equipment tires for troughs and above ground summer watering systems can reduce the cost of adding new watering points.

Increasing diversity or adding new species. Adding legumes into existing stands especially clovers and alfalfa greatly increases the productivity of a pasture. Lespedezas work well on poor quality soils. Legumes also even out the seasonal variation in production. Pastures with legumes particularly alfalfa do much better during drought. Addition of legumes to endophyte infected fescue pastures reduces the effect of the endophyte on cattle.

In many locations in Virginia, it is still hard to beat K-31 fescue for productivity and overall grazing attributes. Elimination of K-31 from pastures and reseeding with other grasses is not cost effective in a beef operation. However, proper management of K-31 will help. Manage K-31 to reduce seedheads and keep it in a vegetative state. In the mountains manage to keep orchardgrass and bluegrass. When the opportunity arises to replace pasture, you may want to consider some of the low endophyte varieties although they are less vigorous than K-31. A new alternative is the endophyte enhanced fescue like Max-QTM which has the vigor of K-31 with out the endophyte toxins. A small acreage of warm season grass, Caucasian bluestem or switchgrass, may also help even out the grazing season east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Recommended Publications on pastures and hay

PublicationSourcePublication Number
Managing Virginia's Steep PasturesVirginia Cooperative Extension418-005
Controlled Grazing of Virginia PasturesVirginia Cooperative Extension418-012
Hay as Part of a Cowherd Production SystemVirginia Cooperative Extension400-002
Virginia Alfalfa Variety Test Report ('95-'99)Virginia Cooperative Extension418-201
Virginia Forage Variety Test Report ('95-'99)Virginia Cooperative Extension418-200
Profitable PasturesUSDA-NRCS 
Pastures for Profit, Minnesota & Wisconsin Cooperative ExtensionA3529

Investing management and money on pasture improvement can provide some of the greatest returns to the beef operation. Many of the management practices we discussed take a relatively small investment in time or dollars especially when compared to the returns. For more information on pasture and hayland management contact your local Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent and NRCS field staff.

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