Larry Ware strip-grazed a field of milo this winter and cut his feed cost in half.
After a dry summer, Ware, who farms in Lincoln County, Mo., did not have the hay supply to make it through the winter. So, he began strip-grazing 50 cow-calf pairs on 15 acres of standing milo last November. The cattle grazed about one-tenth an acre per day for three months.
“It saved me 180 bales, which I didn’t have,” he said. “That hay would’ve cost me anywhere from $12,000 to $13,000. But looking at the cost of milo, fertilization and the opportunity cost of planting and raising 50-bushel beans in my area instead, I found that for sure I was saving at least half, but closer to two-thirds. It cost me around $5,000 in feed this winter with grazing milo.”
Grazing standing milo is one of the best kept secrets in winter cow feeding. Few cattle producers try it, but more should, said Rusty Lee, University of Missouri Extension agronomist and cattle producer.
“It is foreign. It is strange. It is out of the box. But the largest expense and biggest factor affecting profitability of a beef cow herd is winter feed,” Lee told a group gathered at the Lincoln County Soil Health Workshop in Troy, Mo. “If we look at that one variable, and we can cut it in half or two-thirds by strip-grazing milo, it can be the difference between profit and loss in a lot of operations.”
Grow for grain
Lee made one thing clear: “We are growing a grain crop of milo, not a forage.”
He said farmers need to manage accordingly, including seed selection, fertilization, and herbicide and insecticide applications. What is not required is harvest or transportation since the cows graze the product in the field, which reduces overall production costs. Farmers should shoot for 120-bushel milo.
Determining yield is key to setting up the strip-grazing system. Each cow should receive 9 to 10 pounds of grain every day. By knowing per-acre yield, cattle producers can map out the required area to meet nutritional demands.
“If you give more than one day of allocation, there is a lot of waste,” Lee said. “Cows wander and knock the milo down.”
Lee uses the technique at his own farm south of Truxton, Mo. He plants milo on 30-inch rows.
“The cows walk into the middle and bite the heads off the milo,” Lee says. “The allocation is right when you turn cows in, and within 30 minutes, all the grain heads are gone.”
However, Lee points out cows will eat more than the grain.
Anywhere from 75% to 80% of the milo goes into the cow’s mouth, he said. Within two hours of turning the cows out into the field, all the fodder leaves and half the stalk are consumed. It is the lower 18 inches of stalk that ends up uneaten.
But just what type of nutrition are these cows getting?
Value to cow
In 2002, Harry Cope was a pioneer in milo grazing. Cope introduced Lee to the concept.
The two wanted to know the nutritional value to the cow, so Lee took a forage sample from Cope’s Montgomery County farm. He cut the plant off at the ground, measured up 18 inches of the stalk, and then cut it. Everything from that point — grain, fodder leaf, stalk — was chopped up and stuffed in a bag for a forage test.
The results showed protein levels were low at 7.6%. He repeated the process at the Ware farm last year, and again, found protein at 7%. Lee said farmers may want to provide a protein supplement with the system.
However, he said total digestible nutrients were at 76.86%. “That is fantastic,” he said. Lee added it is cheaper to add protein to the milo-grazing system than adding energy to a haying system.
Value to producer
There is not a lot of infrastructure or investment in milo grazing, Lee said.
Farmers need poly wire, plastic posts and a good fence charger. The poly wire only stays up for a day, so farmers are not out setting T-posts and corner posts. Lee said many producers get by with half-inch or seven-eighths-inch fiberglass posts for corners, and small step-ins for line posts.
Often these posts can be pushed into the ground by hand during the fall. Lee said a hammer or cordless drill with a masonry bit may be needed during winter months.
Cattlemen can get by with only one strand of poly wire if it is hot, and the cows respect the electric fence. Ware had to train his cattle. It took about three days and the cattle knew when the wire was electrified. It took only 10 minutes the first day for them to start eating the milo.
Farmers also need to make sure water is available. Ware’s cows had access to a loafing lot. They would go out, eat milo and then return. Back-grazing is part of the process.
Ware has been “very happy” with the condition of the cows on milo. He ran out of milo in February. Since then, he has been feeding corn silage. “The condition on corn silage does not look as good as when they were on milo,” he said.
Plan for future
Milo grazing worked so well and provided such a cost savings that Ware already is looking at ways to improve the process.
This year, he is planting milo, corn and cover crops. Using a 12-row planter, Ware is planting two outside rows with milo, eight center rows with corn and then interseeding cover crops into the entire program.
In the fall, he will harvest the corn. “I will have four rows of milo and cover crops for grazing in the fall and winter,” he said.
MU Extension field specialists will be tracking costs, nutrition and overall production practice to provide more details on this system.
For now, Lee said farmers should consider planting milo for cattle feed. It is a proven practice, working for the past 12 years on farms across east-central Missouri.
“Winter feed is our largest expense as cattle producers,” Lee said. “We need to look at ways to cut this cost.”