The best for animal husbandry and land stewardship is often a balanced decision. These past two years in north-central/northwest Missouri and a bit of southwest Iowa makes grazing management decisions tough to call. Two years of unusually dry and hot summers each followed by severe cold and long winters has left our pastures and pasture management in tatters. The following article printed in Midwest Marketer magazine is from Iowa State UniversityExtension beef specialists Erika Lundy and Denise Schwab offers some ideas for consideration. We live in toxic endophyte fescue country, so it is not a best practice to encourage its growth with the addition of any type of applied nitrogen. Legumes planted can mitigate the effects by replacing the poisonous grass, but must be managed with proper grazing.
Allen is working his calves today and Monday (mine are tomorrow) – it’s time for their second round of vaccinations and some fall calving cows need pregnancy checking. Weather is perfect except super windy. My job is to prepare lunch for the guys for whenever they arrive. It’s ready now (11:30), and i was notified that they’ll be in probably about 1p. Hopefully, all will go smoothly.
Beef short ribs offered with BBQ sauce
Homegrown slow simmered green beans with onions and garlic
Paraguayan Corn Bread (this is a new recipe for me i’ve made a few times this week – adding this one to my lineup and will post recipe soon)
Hay is more Carbon (C) by dry weight than anything else. When we feed hay we are also adding carbon to the soil in addition to the Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorous (P) discussed in the earlier posts in this series. Adding carbon increases the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil through increase in soil organic matter.
How much carbon do we add to the soil with hay feeding?
Let’s do the math.
Hay is typically between 40-50% Carbon depending on plant maturity at harvest time. Some of this C is in cells as soluble sugar or other easily digested materials. The bulk of the C is in plant fiber that varies in degree of digestibility.
What’s left behind after feeding is a combination of unconsumed plant material and dung and urine. Both are important contributors to soil health.
Unconsumed hay is intact plant material that helps provide the ‘armor’ on the soil. During the growing season we refer to litter cover on the soil surface. Hay residue provides the same benefits to the water cycle as plant litter.
The consumed part of hay that is not digested comes out as manure. We have already discussed the N & P values of manure and urine following hay feeding. Whereas we can add too much N or P to the soil through excessive hay feeding, it is almost impossible to add too much C.
The digestible part of the hay is utilized by ruminant livestock as their primary energy source. Maintenance quality cow hay may be as low as 50% digestibility while high quality ‘calf hay’ may be close to 70% digestible. The C from digested material is incorporated into body tissue or expelled as CO2.
It is the non-digested plant material that contributes to building soil organic matter through dung returned to the soil. Manure on the ground does not contribute a lot to ‘soil armor’, but it contributes to feeding soil life.
The rate of manure breakdown is largely driven by digestibility of the residual fiber. If rumen microbes could not quickly digest it, soil microbes aren’t much faster. Manure breaks down much more quickly in warm-wet environments compared to cold-dry environments.
Hay residue left on the ground will ultimately contribute to soil organic matter. Many people have the bad habit of wanting to burn residue piles in the Spring. Please, do not!
These piles become enriched soil organic matter sites and can be above average production areas for years to come. Burning piles sends most of the valuable C into the atmosphere.
While in the first year following feeding there may be some weeds grow up on these piles, most of those weeds are making a contribution to soil development or get grazed by the livestock during the growing season.
The bottom line is, each ton of hay fed will contribute about 400 to 600 lbs of C to the soil as either hay residue or manure.
That is a valuable addition to your land. Make the most of it!
If you’re an organization that supports good grazing, you can sponsor On Pasture as well. Sponsors help make sure that great information is always available to help farmers and ranchers be the best they can be.
Look up the definition of asset in Webster and it’ll tell you an asset is “anything owned that has value.” But Webster has it wrong. If I put a down payment on a ranch, financing the balance, the full value of the land shows up in the asset column of my balance sheet, but I don’t own the whole ranch. The bank probably owns more of it than I do. No, an asset isn’t necessarily something you own. An asset is something you have. Your net worth (Assets-Liabilities) is what you actually own.
Although your banker would disagree, there is a completely different way to define assets. In his best seller, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki defines assets as “things that put money in your pocket” and liabilities as “things that take money out of your pocket.” Between monthly principle payments, interest, insurance, maintenance and repairs, most of the things your banker calls assets are, according to Kiyosaki, really liabilities.
Ironically, the fancy cars and homes that we see as the trappings of wealth are actually huge constraints to generating wealth. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the finer things in life, but until we build a wealth generating machine as our foundation, buying “liabilities” will slow, and may block, our ability to create wealth.
There is an even bigger problem with assets.
In the final chapter of his wonderful book, Nourishment,Fred Provenza writes about taking a sabbatical to Australia with his family. To finance the trip he needed to sell their home in Utah. He explains that he didn’t build the house himself, but had done a lot of work on it and had “a lot of skin in the game.” Unfortunately, at the time of the sale the housing market was very depressed and, while they got their investment back, they didn’t get much more. Between the time of the sale and their trip to Australia, they rented a smaller house Fred called “the dump.” At first he was resentful of having to give up owning his “castle.” But after a couple of weeks in the dump he began to realize that he hadn’t owned the house he’d helped build. He explained, “It owned me.” It owned him financially, requiring huge monthly payments. Even after the sale, it owned him emotionally.
Assets can clutter our space and minds, causing distractions and stress. They make it more difficult to clean and organize. They tie us down. The biggest constraint to moving for some of us is the burden of taking all of our stuff with us.
The things we own trap us. I recently had lunch with a couple who’d been ranching for about 10 years. They both worked off-farm to make ends meet. Over the last several years they’d bought a small place, secured several leases, and built up a herd of a couple hundred cows. But now, with a young family, significant debt and the off-farm jobs, they seemed stuck.
After subtracting the liabilities from their “assets” their net worth came to $1,300,000. On the back of a napkin I wrote them a “check” for $1.3 million and asked them, “If you had nothing but this check and the clothes on your back, and still wanted to achieve your dream, would you use this money to recreate the situation you are in? If not, how would you deploy this money to accelerate progress toward your dream?”
Their expression changed almost immediately. While they’d made progress over the last 10 years, the business they created was going to make it difficult if not impossible to achieve their dream. Rather than a stepping stone, their operation had become an obstacle to further progress. They set out to use the wealth they’d created to change their course.
I went through the identical exercise with another couple whose net worth was closer to $3 million. When I asked if they would recreate the situation they were in, they immediately and in unison said, “No.” But, when I met with them again a year later, they hadn’t changed anything and resigned themselves to “staying the course.” Rather than using the assets they owned to create the lives they dreamed of, they were owned by their assets, which they used as an excuse to stay stuck. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, described it perfectly when he wrote, “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”
Listen to New England Executive Link member, Pat McNiff, explain the cost of keeping assets and the process they used to determine what they needed to keep and what to discard or sell.
We have so far only considered the role of buying and feeding hay as a Nitrogen source for your pastures. Hay is also a great source for slow-release Phosphorus to benefit your pastures.
Manufactured P fertilizers have recently been shown to be detrimental to the presence and function of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Using fed hay as a P source rather than concentrated soluble fertilizers feeds the fungi rather than diminishing them.
Factors Limiting Plant Growth
Nitrogen is generally considered to be the first most limiting nutrient for plant growth in terrestrial environments. Phosphorus is very often the 2nd most limiting nutrient. Unlike the N fixation process carried out by legumes in association with Rhizobia bacteria, we cannot create P out of thin air.
P is critical to both plants and animals as all energy transfers within plant and animal are mediated by P containing compounds. Abundant P is necessary to have healthy pastures and livestock.
Almost all P excreted by animals is in the dung. Because most cattle defecations occur when the animal is at rest, dung tends to accumulate where animals congregate – on the feeding line for example, or where cattle bed in hay not consumed. It does not get spread out over the entire pasture area if feeding is limited to small areas of the pasture.
This why spreading the hay out in the feeding process helps the P cycle.
Excess Nutrients Cause Problems
While P is a critical component of life, it also has pollution potential if we are allowing manure to concentrate in areas prone to surface runoff and soil erosion.
Mismanaged hay feeding can lead to excessive runoff of fecal material into surface water leading to aquatic weed growth and algal blooms. The ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay are due to P runoff as well as N runoff.
How Much P Does Hay Feeding Provide?
Using our previous example of bale grazing with over 20 tons of hay/acre fed, the P load would be about 80 lbs/acre. That is not an excessive amount of P, although the N load was quite high.
Since that P is almost all contained in dung pats, it is slowly released back to the soil through microbial decomposition processes. The greater the biological and insect activity in the soil, the quicker the release process.
We only have a possibility of P contamination of surface waters when there is actual water runoff and/or soil erosion taking fecal particles and soil to the riparian areas.
The key to minimizing risk of P pollution from hay feeding is keeping the feeding areas well away from surface water.
If you missed them, catch up by reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Having a systematic approach to hay feeding is a critical part of maximizing the nutrient benefits you get when feeding hay is a big piece of your pasture fertility program.
We have already seen in the previous post the amount of urinary N that is returned to the soil with each ton of hay fed. We know the amount applied depends on the protein content of the hay. Now let’s look at how you manage the feeding rate.
Let’s Do the Math on Hay Feeding for a Targeted N Application Rate
Remember urinary N is readily available for plant use and is also the form of N that is most likely to be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia or leaching after conversion to nitrate in the soil.
In this example we have 250 cows in the herd and are feeding them about 30 lbs of hay per head per day for a total feed requirement of 7500 lbs/day. We know there will be some feeding waste, so let’s round it up to 4 tons of hay fed per day.
Referring to the table in Part 2 of this series, we know hay at 8% CP will return about 11 lbs of urinary N and 11 lbs of fecal N for each ton of hay fed.
If our target rate of N application is 120 lbs/acre, we could feed on one acre of three days.
What if we have a hay that has protein well above the requirement of the animal?
Dry, pregnant beef cow only needs 7-8% CP. Now we are feeding a 14% CP hay so all the excess N is going to come out in the urine.
Now our urinary N rate per ton of feed is about 31 lbs, so we can only feed one day per acre to apply our target rate of 120 lbs/acre.
Now, Spread the Manure and Urine Across Your Pasture
While we would like to think that if we feed hay on our pastures, the cowsill s run all over and poop all across the field, they do not.
When we have measured manure distribution when feeding hay on snow covered ground, we find typically 80% of the manure falls within 15-20 feet of the feed line. Most of the rest is dropped between today’s feeding strip and the stock water. Very little is returned to the pasture at large unless there is residual grass the cattle are picking at.
Based on the premise that most manure falls within 15-20 ft of the feeding line, we can plan our hay distribution accordingly.
Using the 14% CP hay example and needing to cover one acre every day, we plan our daily feeding to cover a strip one half mile long. In this example, we would feed for 80 days on an 80 acre field to fully fertilize that pasture at 120 lbs N/acre.
It will take a few tries to figure out how fast to drive your pickup to unroll hay or how thick to make your flakes off the big square bales or the windrow width coming out of the bale processor.
The point is you can get a lot more fertility value out of the hay you are feeding if you approach that daily chore with a firm objective in mind.
Bale grazing has been increasing in popularity for several years now. This method of feeding minimizes or eliminates the need for running any feeding equipment in the winter months, but is it really all sunshine and roses?
Let’s take a look at potential for excess nitrogen loading soils under bale grazing.
Spaced Bale Feeding
As part of our early efforts in the 1980s to reduce the cost of feeding hay, we developed what we called ‘Spaced-bale feeding’. This was an early version of bale grazing.
Bales were placed in a feeding block as shown on the right side of the picture. We only handled bales once as they were picked up from the field and put in a feeding block, usually in the same field. Spacing was generally 25-30 ft on centers. The bales were protected with an electric fence and then when it was time to feed, a line of bales was exposed and ring feeders placed on those bales. We manually flipped the feeders each time we fed hay.
We quickly noticed that while we were enriching the pasture fertility in the feeding area, we were having no effect on increasing P levels away from the feeding block. In fact, they were going down.
Yes, the spaced-bale feeding system allowed us to reduce cost of feeding in the winter but it was mining nutrients from the pasture as a whole and concentrating them around the feeding block. We did relocate the block every year, but they were always placed close to the permanent fence and not scattered all across the pastures.
Bale grazing was being done more commonly in Canada by the early 2000s. Ring feeders were done away with because of the difficulty using them in deep snow situations.
An electric fence is moved and a set number of bales were exposed to the cattle. Very often the bales were just left where the baler had dropped them in the summer, so equipment cost was reduced even further.
As more producers bought their needed hay rather than baling it themselves, bale grazing started to trend back towards feeding blocks rather than widely scattered bales across the field where they had been harvested.
Now we can look at the N being returned to the field in those feeding areas using the information shown earlier in this series of posts.
That is a lot of N!
You might ask, “But who would feed 20 tons/acre?”
Here is an aerial photo showing where bale grazing took place on a farm the previous winter. We easily see the increased growth where the bales had been fed. The area outlined is one acre.
With 36 bales weighing 1300 lbs fed on that one acre, the urinary N returned is over 400 lbs/acre!
Even if the cows did wander off and urinate in different parts of the pasture, there is likely still at least 300 lbs/acre raining down on the feeding block.
This is where we can end up when we don’t have a feeding plan that balances the feeding rate with the capacity of the soil to absorb and hold N.
In some parts of the US such as the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes watersheds, N overload is a serious issue and regulations are in place to regulate manure application and animal concentration.
It is in everyone’s best interest that we on the land understand the consequences of our decisions. We all need to have nutrient management plans for our farms and ranches – not because the government is going to eventually make all of us do it, but because it makes economic and environmental sense to do so.
Nitrogen is only part of the fertility story. Next week, we’ll look at Phosphorous. If you have questions for Jim, please share them in the comment section below.