April 16, 2004 | By: Aimee D. Heald

Since grazing is the cheapest way to feed cattle, it makes sense to find ways to extend the grazing season. Farmers would be able to reduce costs and expand production with minimal impact on the environment. So, what’s the best way to extend the grazing season? 

Most Kentucky farmers would not immediately answer corn. However, recent and ongoing research indicates corn may be an option.

“Corn is not a traditional grazing crop in Kentucky,” said David Ditsch, Extension agronomy specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s substation in Quicksand. “Results from several on-farm trials in southeastern Kentucky suggest significant increases in animal production per unit of land area from grazing standing mature corn during the late fall/early winter are possible and even economical.”

In 2001, farmers in Pulaski and Laurel counties planted no-till corn and followed UK fertilizer and weed control recommendations to study the effects of grazing stocker cattle on corn for a two-year period. The study was funded by a Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program producer grant.

“Generally southeastern Kentucky farmers are not grain producers,” he said. “We helped them learn how to plant and cultivate no-till corn.”

Corn yields during that two-year period averaged 82.9 bushels per acre in 2002 and 82.3 bushels per acre in 2003. The grazing period varied from farm to farm, but ranged from early September through mid-February in 2001 and early September through early April in 2002. Ditsch said grazing efficiency for the grain portion of the crop averaged about 78.1 percent in the first year and 80.8 percent in year two.

“The grazing efficiency did not seem to be related to grazing date, but more influenced by the combination of stocking density and grazing days,” Ditsch said. “The termination of grazing corn was based entirely on the farmer’s decision and their assessment of the amount of corn remaining and the rate of cattle intake.”

The highest average daily gain in the first year was 2.22 pounds, which occurred with a grazing efficiency of 73 percent. The lowest average daily gain was 1.66 pounds, which occurred with a grazing efficiency of 93 percent. In the second year, one farm had a grazing efficiency of 99 percent, but only a 1.12 pound average daily gain.

“The results show us that if cattle have to work too hard to get to the grain, their intake will go down and they actually lose, instead of gain,” Ditsch said. “So managing grazing for maximum efficiency may not be the answer. We do want to maximize utilization, but not to the point of losing animal performance.”

The economic benefits of grazing corn crops with stocker cattle are quite variable. Grain costs (cost of gain) ranged from 44 to 54 cents per pound in the above study when the corn was valued at its production cost. Costs generally were 20 cents per pound higher when the corn was valued at its opportunity cost.

As a continuation of studying corn as a grazing option, three producers in Boyd County have agreed to participate with UK Extension specialists. Their participation will be part of a 
year-round grazing program that also includes fall stockpiled tall fescue. Ditsch said the goal is to avoid using hay.

Extension specialists are working one-on-one with the three farmers to give them the tools they need to raise corn and cattle. The ongoing research will be highlighted at several tours and field days in coming months.

Ditsch said, in general, study results indicate that grazing stocker cattle on mature standing corn crops can be profitable and help extend the grazing season in southeastern Kentucky. During the two-year study there were no herd health problems such as founder.

“Animal performance measured as average daily gain was highly variable from 1.05 to 2.47 pounds and appeared to be related to grazing efficiency and grain yield,” he said. “On farms where the opportunity cost of corn is low or approaches the cost of production, grazing corn appears to have merit, but it’s not a clear-cut economic decision.”

Ditsch added that yield potential, alternative markets for corn, alternative uses for land and other factors influence this decision.


Writer: Aimee D. Heald 606-666-2438, ext.231
Source: David Ditsch 859-257-5582