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Research can help cattle producers cut costs

TUCUMCARI - Cattle producers in New Mexico may achieve higher productivity and lower costs based on pasture research conducted by New Mexico State University scientists.

Cattle relax in a pasture near Mora, N.M. In a three-year study, researchers from New Mexico State University tested techniques that can result in higher productivity and lower costs for cattle producers in New Mexico. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

That could be especially important this year as dry conditions force cattle producers to decide whether to put cattle in pastures or sell them, since rangeland is so parched from lack of rain in many areas of the state. Irrigated pastures in New Mexico, common along rivers and across the north central part of the state, rely on waterways or underground sources of water rather than rainfall.

Researchers at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari, led by forage agronomist Leonard Lauriault, conducted a three-year study that compared two pasture grazing techniques: rotational, where cattle graze intensively in one part of a pasture for about a week before being moved to a new area; and continuous, where cattle are allowed to graze freely across an entire pasture for an indefinite time. The study also compared pastures containing only tall wheatgrass, only alfalfa and a combination of the two.

Between 70 and 80 mixed-breed yearling steers or crossbred yearling heifers were grazed on the pastures from April to September each year, before being sent to a feedlot.

Results of the study, published by the Crop Science Society of America in 2005, showed that including alfalfa in a pasture doubled cattle's weight gain compared to cattle that grazed in a pasture containing only tall wheatgrass. The study also determined that continuous stocking likely resulted in less bloat in cattle, a potentially fatal ailment that can be caused when cattle first graze fresh alfalfa.

"We think it's because we're not dramatically changing their diet," Lauriault said. "While we observed a reduction in bloat under continuous grazing of alfalfa, caution is still recommended when grazing pastures including alfalfa or other legumes and bloat preventatives should always be used."

Other benefits of continuous stocking are lower labor costs, since cattle don't have to be moved often, and lower costs for fencing, since pastures do not have to be sectioned off.

"We can carry the same number of animals in a continuously grazed pasture as opposed to a rotationally grazed pasture as long as we manage it properly," Lauriault said. Proper management includes paying careful attention to carrying capacity and pasture health. "We've known for a long time that including legumes (alfalfa) in pastures has been a good thing, but they've always recommended rotational stocking, so this is going to be a thing of the future, a way to reduce labor costs and maximize the level of animal production per acre. This is a more efficient way to manage pasture."

Manny Encinias, livestock specialist at NMSU's Clayton Science Center, said cattle producers who use irrigated pastures have more options.

"We're starting to see more and more of it," Encinias said. "It's allowing for some more flexibility and more intense grazing." For example, if there is a demand for high-quality hay by horse owners, a cattle producer could choose to cut and sell the hay growing on pastures. If conditions are so dry that rangelands cannot support cattle, a producer could choose to let cattle graze the pastures.

"It's going to vary from producer to producer," Encinias said. And in a year like this, "it makes them a little more drought-proof."

Lauriault said producers wishing to establish pastures that contain alfalfa will face higher costs when seeding the fields. But those costs would soon be outweighed by higher profits from more beef produced per acre.