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Beefs and Beliefs

Christmas cows and high-density grazing

Great grazing efficiency creates options for more livestock. What to do?

As Christmas draws near, I've been obsessed with two things, aside from my regular work on Beef Producer and BEEF Vet:

1. Rationing out the right amount of forage in strip grazing to get near full consumption of all standing forage at the highest stock density possible, with enough protein supplement to reasonably maintain cow body condition.

2. Buying some bred cows while they appear to be at long-term lows.

Each of these topics individually could merit lengthy conversations, so I'll try to moderate myself.

I have written numerous times in recent years about the clear boost in soil health, and the rapidity of that improvement, that comes from high-stock-density grazing. I have been achieving around 200,000 pounds of stock density per acre lately, depending on forage quantity, with only one move per day. Operating at even higher stock density would be ideal, in my opinion, but I must work with the constraints I have.

Nonetheless, I believe this will pay in spades during the next growing season, as the density of manure and urine distribution wakes up the soil biology from many years of farming and then about 60 years of continuous grazing.

In October I calculated at the rate I was grazing off the forage I could graze and bale-graze until mid April. Now I'm using half or less than half the acreage per day I was using then, and with the same size herd.

These are custom-grazed cows, and since I have capacity for and should be able to profit from more animals, I have analyzed the markets and my options and decided to buy cull cows. There is almost no cow-price bell curve right now, meaning essentially there is little difference in bred cow price regardless of age. The market for bred cows has collapsed to pretty much one price and the market for cull cows is still lower.

It appears to me the combination of disaster in dairy-product pricing and perhaps a topping of beef cow numbers in the beef price cycle may have created this situation. Therefore, I think this is a good time to look at bred cows as a potentially profitable purchase.

In my part of the world, they still seem to be priced pretty commonly at $750-$1,100, with the occasional animals fetching something in the $1,200 price range.

Sometime in the near future, assuming the overall economy holds up, I think bred cows could stage a price comeback.

At any rate, I'd rather achieve full stocking rate and face the possibility later I might need to sell some animals than to fail to capture forage production I have standing around. This is not because I think a blade of grass growing is a blade of grass wasted. Rather, it's because I have dry matter available to help me capture what could be a bargain with a decent return. Further, I'd like the cattle to "fertilize" the entire farm.

If I buy several bred cows for $850 and spend about $1 per day to carry them, then by the time they calve and get the babies big enough to early wean, I'll have maybe $120-150 added dollars in the cows for a total of $970-$1,000. It cow prices come back, they could easily fetch more than that.

In addition, I'll have some light calves that hopefully will also gain in value from where they are today. As lightweight calves, they should be worth at least current value around $2 per pound, or hopefully more. At some point, I need to charge their carry costs on the farm against them, but early on I don't figure they'll eat that much and so I simply roll their costs into the cost to carry their dams.

Only time will tell whether I'm right about a comeback in prices for bred cows and lightweight calves.

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