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Experimenting with pasture program can pay off

Doug Ferguson takes a look at the thirsty cattle markets this week and gives a lesson in pasture management.

Doug Ferguson

January 5, 2024

6 Min Read
Experimenting with pasture program can pay off
VECTORBOMB-THINKSTOCKPHOTOS

This one pasture I rent used to always have weeds. There were almost no clovers growing on the place and there were spaces of bare dirt between plants. Cattle were continuously grazed 5-6 months out of the year there until corn stalks were available. The landowner loved chemicals and spraying so he would routinely ride out and spray areas of this pasture. This is how everyone does it in our local area.

Change in grazing management

One year I changed my grazing practices and cross-fenced it with poly wires. I rotated cattle from one cell to another throughout the season. The landlord got frustrated due to all the cross fencing and didn’t bother to spray that year. Since that initial year of rotating, I have combined all my groups of cattle into one, I rotate around the pasture and then move them on to the next place.

After the cattle came off there was nothing for the landlord to go spray because everything was trampled. It only took a couple years and the bare dirt between plants started growing grasses. The clovers came back, and the weeds were reduced.

Base of the pyramid

When I started this grazing program, I had no clue what I was doing, I was experimenting. I have adjusted the program since I started it. The results I have gotten fortified the base of my inventory pyramid. This program has gotten me through two dry spells (2012 and 2023).

We hear all the time to manage for what we want and not for what we don’t want. I along with others have asked what that means and how do we do it. I have never gotten an answer to that question, and I am not aware that anyone else has either no matter who the expert was we asked it to.  When I look back on it what I just described above is just that, managing for what I wanted. It’s just that I didn’t look at it that way because I didn’t understand it. I was trying to get rid of what didn’t serve me.

Are weeds the problem?

We are mentally conditioned from a young age that weeds are the problem. That paradigm is hard to change. When we tell someone that weeds are a symptom we are immediately met with resistance to that idea. The grazing program that was in place before caused the weeds and the chemicals only temporarily masked the problem. I still graze cattle on this pasture every year. It is just now done with a different mental model that includes the use of poly wire and a portable water tank.

Buying bred cattle? Think twice!

There was a post on Facebook that was brought to my attention. It was a long sob story about how they had a horrible breed back percentage on their young females.  Due to these females being open they had to be sold off.  They had this write up about all the years carefully selecting bulls and that these young females represented their best genetics, and now all that time and value was gone. They couldn’t operate without replacing these females, so they bought a bunch of breds that met their requirements.  The post shared what those requirements were and there was a long list of boxes to check off. 

Under value vs. over value cattle

That is a mental model. I used to have one very similar to the one they shared in their post. I went through the same thing they are going through. I had a year where all the younger females fell out of the program. (You can read about that experience in a book called Cow Country Essays by Chip Hines. I contributed one of the essays.) I made a different management choice than the people that shared this on Facebook. What they did was sell an undervalued animal and replace it with an over-valued animal. Given the check list of requirements, it is a given they paid a premium for these new bred females. They then went on to explain how normal this is and that it is why it is nearly impossible to make a living in the cattle business. 

This post didn’t explain the cattle business, it represented their mental model of how to run a cattle business. We hear all the time from other people around us that we can’t make money in the cattle business.  All this means is that we have a systemic thinking problem in the cattle business, and we can fix that.

Think about this. We have an $80 billion industry that is saturated with people that have this systemic thinking problem. That means there is always money left on the table.  It is also about the closest thing to laissez faire free market capitalism there is.

For that reason, a young person can start from scratch and build a solid full-time business, if they have the right education, and the discipline to execute. The problem is the young people have already been programmed with the wrong mental model. Learning new things is easy, it is letting go of old models that is hard. 

We must let go of what doesn’t serve us in order to make room for what does. Only then can we get the results we want.

Thirsty cattle markets

It’s nice to have the holiday break behind us and get back to the business of marketing cattle. Since some people haven’t bought cattle for a minute, they are acting thirsty, thus there is high demand for cattle right now. Some auctions were steady with where they were before the break while others looked like a compressed spring that was let go and their markets soared higher and all with a high volume moving this week.

Grass weight cattle and the heavier feeders are seeing the most demand. This dynamic has created the trough effect as far as Value of Gain, right around the six to seven weight cattle.  When it comes to marketing cattle right now, one has to be paying attention to the market signals.  It is paying to put weight on some animals, while it is not paying to put weight on others.

Leap frog trades are definitely possible, and not just the ones where we can buy weight cheaper than we can feed it on, but the ones where the market pays us, that’s right pays us, to take weight home. Recognizing these signals is what separates the pros from the joes. Opportunity presents itself in many ways.

Highest value of gain

One mental model we have been falsely equipped with is market topping cattle. While prices are considerably higher in the Plains states than in the south, it is the south that is rocking the highest VOG, and it is steady there as well. They are in the weight gain business right up until the cattle weights about 800 pounds. 

The price difference between plains markets and southern markets sets up some sweet geographical spreads. Feeder bulls were up to 30 back, fleshy cattle were up to 15 back, and replacement quality heifers caught up to $15-dollar premium this week.

The opinions of Doug Ferguson are not necessarily those of beefproducer.com, beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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