The Kansas Flint Hills have served as a home and food source for stocker cattle since the mid-1800s, when cowboys drove longhorns up the Chisholm Trail from the southwestern United States to Kansas railways.
Flash forward to today: research from Kansas State University on this staple resource could help ensure profitable years ahead for stocker producers.
Traditionally, stocker cattle are placed on Flint Hills pastures in the spring and removed in early fall to finish in the feedlot. Prior research has shown that stockers tend to have greater gains—to the tune of 30 pounds or more—on pasture burned in the spring compared to pasture that had not been burned.
However, in addition to burning, stocker producers could also enhance returns by practicing different grazing strategies, said Clenton Owensby, K-State professor of range management who has studied stocker strategies and grazing systems for more than 50 years.
Owensby said continuous grazing is the most commonly used and economically efficient grazing system in the Flint Hills. Continuous grazing means stocker cattle remain on the same pasture for the entire grazing period prior to going to the feedlot.
The time the animal remains on pasture depends on which continuous grazing scheme the producer uses. Taking advantage of early summer high-quality forage, by stocking at twice the normal season-long rate for the first half of the season with no grazing during the last half, is called intensive early stocking—one form of continuous grazing. Owensby said intensive early stocking should be part of a producer's grazing plan.
Intensive early stocking >>
Intensive early stocking: why better gains early in the season
During the 1970s, Owensby and his colleague Ed Smith looked more closely at intensive early stocking, and they found it to have many benefits. It has since gained popularity in the Flint Hills.
"Two-thirds of the gain occurs in the first half of the season and one-third in the last half of the season," Owensby said. "The idea was to increase gain per acre and also maintain individual animal gain. Stockers gain the same whether stocked at light, moderate or heavy rates during the first half of the grazing season. Stocking at heavy rates will cause reduced gains in the last half of the season."
Owensby said as the grazing season progresses, ungrazed plants mature and are lower in quality, which can cause cattle to gain less.
"Grazing systems that move cattle within the season to a pasture that hasn't been grazed earlier in that season will cause substantial reductions in livestock gains," he said.
Grazing animals compensate for the low quality later in the season by grazing on regrowth of previously grazed plants. This means intensive early stocking, followed by late-season grazing in the same pasture will make more regrowth per animal available.
"How well an animal will gain during the season is based on the quality of the diet and the regrowth they consume in the later half of the season," Owensby said. "If you have a lot of good regrowth, you're going to get a fairly good gain during the late season."
The trouble with grazing at twice the normal rate in the early season followed by the normal rate during the last half is that a fairly significant amount of the leaf area is not sustainable every year, Owensby said. The cattle graze on the regrowth in the fall, which can reduce forage production the following spring. The situation brought on a need to study specific grazing rotations.
Rotations for added value >>
Rotations for added value
Owensby and his colleagues found success in intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing, followed by season-long stocking the second year and back to intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing in year three. This every other year rotation was studied for 10 years and proved to be productive and sustainable.
"It only took the one season-long stocking year to regain the vigor and the productivity," Owensby said. "It increased net profit (for stocker producers)."
"At the same time, we initiated another study where we had intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing, followed by intensive early stocking, and then back to intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing," he added.
The researchers found the grass remained productive by this rotation also, and they didn't see an increase of woody or weedy plant species in pastures. Net profit for producers is greater using the two-year rotation of intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing and either season long stocking or intensive early stocking.
"If you burn and do intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing, we're talking $48 more (per head)," he said. "If you rotate it with season-long stocking, we're talking $60. If you do intensive early stocking plus late-season grazing rotated with intensive early stocking, we're talking $65."
Owensby warns that a grazing rotation should be a long-term commitment: "You can't just do this two or three years in a row. You have to give that plant the rest with the normal stocking rates the following season." Owensby is currently working on a publication to discuss these techniques further.