More variety in pasture creates ‘buffet’ for cattle

An Oregon State University professor is studying pasture and forage management.

 

The global increase in pasture-based cattle production has many livestock producers adding more forage varieties to their fields.

Serkan Ates, assistant professor in Oregon State University’s Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, took notice of the trend, and is researching a more efficient method of pasture management to improve livestock production.

He is conducting two experiments this fall. The first is a comparison of simple pasture mixtures planted in separate strips to create something of a “buffet” rather than a “salad bar,” a term coined by author and farmer Joel Salatin in his 1995 book, “Salad Bar Beef.”

“Instead of mixing these plant spaces, how about spaciously planting them in strips, so (animals) eat whatever they want,” Ates said. “Also, different plant spaces have different needs; legumes don’t need to be fertilized so heavily as grasses. (We can) tailor the fertilization input, demand for each crop.”

Ates thinks this separation will also keep plants from competing with one another.

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Serkan Ates, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University, is experimenting with pasture management to increase grazing efficiency.

The other experiment will focus on dryland sheep farms and evaluate which plant mixtures can be best established, and how that will impact fields and animals in the long term.

He hopes his experiments can also overcome the problem of waterlogged fields, if he sets up spaces for plants that are tolerant to the wet environment.

While Ates is focusing on refining the grazing management process, several livestock producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have been applying similar concepts to their pastures.

Organic dairy farmer Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys only considers something a weed if his cows won’t eat it.

“With different types of feed, every type you grow has different chemical makeups, different vitamins,” he said. “Each plant has a different relationship with the microbes in the soil, different relationship with bacteria. It’s a lot more nutritious feed if it contains a bunch of different plants.”

Bansen plants what he knows cows like, especially dandelions. Among the other forages in his pasture are chicory, plantain, taproot, clovers and grasses such as orchardgrass and fescue.

Along with known favorites, David McKibben of McK Ranch is leaving thistles and noxious blackberries in his field to see if his livestock will eat them. The ranch produces grass-finished beef. The cows will nibble at them, Mckibben said, but they’re not in the same way his red clover, rye grass and alfalfa pasture base is.

“There’s not many people who use alfalfa because it’s so valuable as a commodity, but we find it scattered through the pasture,” McKibben said. When the alfalfa gets low, he will let the grass return before he plants more. He said alfalfa is not competitive with the grass when it starts to grow.

McKibben divides his fields into small sections, giving his cattle three to four days to consume both the protein and energy portions of the plants.

“They pick the protein and then have to graze lower for energy, which is down by the roots,” he said. “They’ll go through a big area and get all the protein, but a lot of protein doesn’t produce fat; they need protein and energy.”

Despite its rapid growth at the meat market, grass-finished beef is still a modest part of the industry, John Marble, cattle stocker at Heart Z Ranch, said.

Marble manages an intensive grazing system on permanent pastures, and tends toward zero-input that includes no direct costs. His grazing program involves “frequent moves for the cattle and long rest periods for the grass,” he said.

All of Marble’s products — stocker calves, pairs and butcher cows — are sold into the conventional commercial market.

“I’m happy for the folks who are in the specialty markets like organic or grass-fed or direct sales, but frankly, those markets are very complicated,” he said. “That said, the grass-fed market is growing rapidly and appears set to continue capturing more market share. The reasons are complex, but some of it boils down to demand: The public seems to be saying they want more grass-fed options. That’s a good thing for graziers.”

Beyond the public demand for grass-finished beef, an increase in grain prices has the potential to make the market more competitive.

“People are demanding grains for their own consumption, creating competition between human and animal for grain,” Ates said. “It’s just not as affordable to feed with that anymore.”

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