Tennessean tells of cheap grazing system

Low input and improved cattle performance are part of the draw of native grasses.


Mindy Ward, BEEF Magazine

Aug 05, 2019


To passers-by, it may appear to be a pasture that got way out of hand with its tall weeds and flowers. But this lush field with hints of gold, purple and white peeking through as the wind blows provides cattle quality forage on the cheap.


“This is what we call diversified native planting,” Harry Cope shares with a group of 100 farmers standing in his pasture outside of Truxton, Mo. “There are warm-season grasses, quite a few cool-season natives and a smattering of the forbs.”


Now in its third year of production, the native pasture is Cope’s latest endeavor to move his farm program away from fescue and into more diverse forage mixtures.


Pasture problems


Missouri is in the part of the world dominated by tall fescue with nearly 17 million acres covering the state.


“It has its role, its place and its benefit, but also its liability,” says Pat Keyser, University of Tennessee professor and director for the Center for Native Grasslands Management. “Even though tall fescue gives a lot, it does not give a lot during summer, especially to cattle.”


Fescue quality goes down in the summer months, and cows simply don’t eat as much. “What you will see with cows on tall fescue is a reduction in intake, reduction in growth rate and reduction in cattle performance,” Keyser says. All that changes when grazing cattle on pastures seeded with native grass mixes.


The difference is heat tolerance. “Native grass mixes will put up with summer, put up with the hot weather, put up with the drought year and still produce quality forage,” Keyser explains.


In Tennessee, the statewide average for fall fescue is 2.5 tons per acre. Keyser says University of Tennessee data show farmers yielding up to 5 tons per acre with native mixes.


Cattle performance also increased. Rate of gain was double to triple when grazing natives compared with tall fescue, Keyser says. Producers backgrounding found steers put on 200 to 250 pounds per head in a 90- to 100-day grazing season in the summer at 26 cents per pound gain. “That is pretty good,” Keyser says.


Increase in tonnage and improvement in cattle performance is all coming at a relatively low price.


Economical solution


“I am a cheap farmer,” Cope says...