"There's nothing you can do to make money in agriculture like growing grass," says Missouri grazier Bob Salmon.
Salmon says he tried a number of farming endeavors over the years but the use of planned grazing to help the grass grow better and to parcel it out to livestock is the thing that's paid the bills for this first-generation grass farmer.
If you want to grow a corn crop you've got to throw money at it," says the Appleton City producer. "But grass is not that way. If you want to make more money on grass you have to learn how it grows and learn to manage grazing."
More than 10 years now Salmon has kept pretty extensive records on his grazing and grass production and those records show an average production of 200 cow-days grazing per acre and a stocking rate of barely below two acres to a cow unit.
Salmon converts all his numbers to "cow days" and cow units, even though he is primarily a stocker operator and doesn't always have cows on the land. His cow unit is 1,000 pounds of animal.
Salmon also has done monthly forage testing and found the quality of forage his management can serve to his calves is ample throughout the year. Even in June, which is arguably one of the worst months for fescue, he was producing 17.5% crude protein and 54% TDN with a 48-hour in-vitro digestibility score of 79%. These scores were in 2010, which was about an average rainfall year.
He also keeps records on forage height at turn-in and residual height when he leaves a paddock. He says with the data book in his pickup it takes only a few seconds per day. That tends to give him a pretty good estimate of his forage production, together with his cow-days of grazing.
Those numbers show that across eight years he estimated average turn-in height on 21 paddocks in one 200-acre grazing unit at 7.7 inches and average residual height at 4 inches after grazing. His average graze time in each paddock -- and these are averages -- is about 1.5 days during the growing season and 3.3 days for the year, meaning he grazed each paddock just more than twice and took a little less than half the standing forage -- again these are averages and are constantly changing to match conditions (see sidebar story).
Salmon's data on the forage itself proves his well-spoken mantra: "It takes grass to grow grass."
"You eat your grass down like [some people do] and you're begging for a drought," he says. "There's actually no problem with having too much grass. It's like having too much money in the bank."
Taller grass also has deeper roots, he explains.
The data for this particular unit also shows the effectiveness of Salmon's style of management. His records show in 2010-2011 he was growing about 8,000 pounds per year of forage and harvesting about 6,400, or roughly 80% of what was grown.
"How can you harvest 80% by taking half and leaving half?" he asks wryly.
It's all in the management, he says.
Conditions change all the time but if you keep records, plan ahead and revise your plan as needed, all those complexities just have a way of working out.
It also helps to have big, abstract-thinking goals as is taught by Holistic Management training, Salmon says. The goals he and his family set are to have a sustainable farm with healthy soil, a health stand of grass and quality of life for the operators.
Grazing plans match conditions
Grass management is a moving target but it's not that hard to hit, says Missourian Bob Salmon.
The trick is to learn how forage grows, how it responds to grazing pressure and how it recovers after grazing. Then you do the best you can with the livestock and other resources at hand to use that forage.
The first problem for graziers always is the extra forage that grows faster than your available cattle can eat it. For Salmon, whose primary forage is fescue, that means spring and fall both present that problem.
He looks at it as stockpiling in spring for summer semi-dormancy and in fall for winter dormancy.
If prices cooperate, Salmon says he sometimes brings in some extra stocker cattle for that spring flush. Sometimes he just lets it build up and eats it down later with cows -- especially in the winter when the cows are not lactating and quality is not an issue. But the last few years he simply hasn't had any cows because he considered the economics of owning cows to be unfavorable.
Part of the issue is also handled this way, both for quality and quantity management: When the grass is growing really fast, like in the spring, he moves the cattle faster. Depending on the year and the volume of forage, he may leave more residual material behind. Perhaps he'll only take the top fourth instead of roughly half.
Then, as things slow down, he slows down his cattle movement and takes more of the forage. Performance can drop a little this way but it's just part of the system. The key is to take care of the forage so you will have plenty throughout the year. That way you'll still be better off than if you continuously grazed and ate it all down and suffered the classic summer drought most people undergo.
On one 200-acre unit with 21 paddocks which Salmon owns, that might mean in the fast-growth spring season he would graze the herd one day in each paddock. That would provide 20 days recovery time. The faster rotation and just topping the plants also helps suppress seedhead production in the fescue, he adds.
As growth slows into the summer Salmon says he might graze each paddock two days, which would provide the forage 40 days recovery time. He could go even a little longer, targeting longer rest periods.
Typically, since less forage grows in the summer and into the fall than in the spring, Salmon says he would have fewer cattle and would still be in a slower "rotation." But in the fall, after the forage starts growing again he often begins to pick up numbers.
"You can winter a lot of light cattle on not much grass with stockpiled fescue," he says. "Then they're getting heavier by spring and they're ready for spring growth."
Once winter really hits and the fescue is dormant, he typically will have cattle graze off the majority of the forage in each paddock.
"I'm never for taking it to the deck, though," he says.
Winter is a good time to clean rough forage up using strip grazing with cows, if you have them, he says. If not, you can decide ahead of time to hay a few paddocks, or you can use high stock density and strip grazing with stocker cattle, accepting you are hurting performance but doing it anyway.
Flexibility in thought and action is the key to making managed grazing work, Salmon says.
Giving the grass adequate recovery and regrowth time is the way to have plenty of forage to work with.