In recent columns, we have discussed using management to replace inputs. A critical element in achieving this goal is to use the livestock and the management that makes the best use of the available resources.
For a number of years, we would sell our home-raised calves at weaning and buy back light calves to winter on wheat. Our rationale was that clean-till wheat was the highest quality forage we could grow and the thin little calves would make better use of this forage than our fat, home-raised calves. We developed sources of light calves, mostly in the southeastern US, that would do very well on our country – once we got them weaned, dewormed, their mineral deficiencies treated, and cured up the shipping fever that always occurred to some extent. We routinely doctored a lot of calves and if we lost less than 5% we thought we were doing good.
Our country in southeast Oklahoma was marginal as a wheat pasture area. Frequently, fall rains didn't start until November so that wheat, even if dry planted in August, didn't make grazeable growth until February. If the rains did come in mid September, we could have pasture by mid November; provided, of course, that it didn't keep raining and make the fields too soft to graze.
On average, two years out of five we would be limited by dry weather, one year would be too wet, one year would be fair and one year would be good enough to keep us coming back looking for that home run year.
Every year, we spent time, labor and money and we lost soil health tilling, fertilizing and planting wheat. About one year out of two we would have to spray for green bugs and/or army worms.
In the 25% or so of the time that it worked well, this program was great. Calves were upgraded in class and gains were very good. When it didn't work, we lost soil and money and wasted a lot of hard work.
I won't describe all the steps and missteps we went through, but we eventually changed to a program of weaning and keeping our own calves. These calves were wintered on the best forage we had available, usually dormant bermudagrass with some cool-season grasses and legumes. We added just enough protein supplement to keep them growing at a normal pace. After we learned to wean on pasture, with calves separated from their mothers by electric fence, both sickness and death loss dropped to nearly nothing.
When the spring flush arrived, the calves were grown out and healthy, ready to make rapid gains. They turned the crank until they were sold after 90-120 days.
The wheat ground that we had been spending all summer plowing to keep Johnsongrass down was overseeded with ryegrass and low rates of legumes. I parked the plows and told the Johnsongrass to have at it.
We did not make as much beef per acre as the old program in good years but over a five-year period, we made more beef per acre at a lower cost so that profit was much better. We dramatically cut soil loss, man hours and all of the inputs we had been buying routinely.
I would occasionally hear, "That land is too good to be growing pasture." Sometimes I heard it from my own dad who dearly loved to smell fresh turned dirt and to combine a good wheat crop. He grumbled that he never was able to make a good farmer out of me but he liked the monetary results of my turning his wheat patch to grass.
A hard belief for people who have grown up in industrial agriculture to give up is that higher production always equates to higher profits. That is untrue.
High levels of production in industrial agriculture are dependent on high levels of inputs. Seldom is a high level of production the most beneficial, either fiscally or ecologically, to the whole operation. Usually the optimum level will be considerably lower than the highest level.
High input equals high risk. In the example given, we were putting the costs of labor, machinery expense, seed, fertilizer, cattle medicine and purchased cattle at risk every year even though we had the history of being profitable less than half the years.
By changing to a program based on mostly perennial plants and home-raised cattle, we eliminated most out-of-pocket costs and dramatically improved our profitability. The amount of money coming in is not nearly as important as the difference between what is coming in and what is going out. What happened to the health of our soil will have to wait for another column.