One of the most undermanaged crops we have in North America is pasture. The reason we don’t manage it or don’t understand it is because most pasture is not bought or sold. It is usually consumed on farm. So we don’t understand the value of it. If we never see any value in it, we don’t expect anything from it. All we need to do is take the time to calculate out a margin on pasture and we can start to understand its value. Do you know what your pastures yield? Do you know the dollars per acre return?
I have had many producers over the years tell me that they would never send their cattle to a custom grazier because it is just too expensive. More often than not, I prove to them that it would actually be cheaper for them to send their cattle elsewhere to graze.
Here is an example:
A producer was at my school and remarked that $1.25/pair/day was really expensive, so I asked him a few questions about his pasture at home. What was the rental value of his land, if he could rent it out? Answer: $3,500. How many cows graze on it? 30 pair. How many days do they normally graze? 100 days. $3,500/(30 x 100)= $1.17/pair/day. Is it cheaper? $1.25 isn’t cheaper than $1.17 but who does all the work for 8.3 cents?
Can he get the fence checked in the spring, deal with water and mineral all season long, move, check and treat any animals that might need treating? In this example, including his labour and equipment costs of managing the herd for an entire season, there is no way he is managing the herd cheaper. Trucking costs need to be factored in as well.
Now don’t take this one example as the only situation possible; in some cases it may very well be a better option to graze your own land. The point I’m making is that we need to look at the real numbers in order to figure out the best options for our situation. To do that we need to calculate the yield off of a pasture.
Fortunately, there is a tool that can help us do that. A grazing chart is a complicated-looking spread sheet that is really easy to use once you understand how to fill it in. It allows you to figure out what each paddock produced in animal days per acre (ADAs) and then translates that into the universal language of dollars per acre.
ADA is a measure of how much forage is consumed from each pasture. If you can figure out bushels, then ADAs will be a piece of cake.
The animal value needs to be adjusted depending on the class and the amount of size of livestock that we are grazing. We record the ADA value of the herd and the amount of time that the herd spends in each paddock. We can then add up each area and determine our overall yield in ADAs and dollars per acre.
If you use another unit of measurement such as stock days per acre (SDA) or animal unit days (AUD), that’s fine, just make sure you use the same measurements each year. And it might be difficult to compare your numbers to someone else’s if they don’t use the same units. I have used ADAs for years so that is what I continue to use.
For my grazing chart, my base AD is a 700-lb. yearling. They are valued at 1.0 AD. If they are a bit smaller at 500 lbs. then it’s 0.75 AD. If they are a bit bigger at 900 lbs., 1.25 AD. A dry cow that weighs 1,200 lbs. would be 1.5 AD. A 1,200-lb. cow with a small calf at her side would be 1.75 AD. Let’s say that calf is about 300 lbs., that pair would be 2.0 AD, and if the calf was over 500 lbs., the pair would be 2.25 AD. These are my base numbers. If the cows are heavier or lighter, I would adjust accordingly.
What is the bull worth? How big is he and is he busy breeding or just grazing in a field? You can use your own judgment from here. I was always told a goat or a sheep would eat 1/8 of what a cow does so that would make them about 0.19 AD. (Or 0.2 would be close enough for me.)
It is really quite simple.
One 700-lb. yearling grazing for 100 days would be 100 AD. Or, if we had 100 yearlings that each weighed 700 lbs. grazing for one day, we would have 100 AD. Or, if we had 50 pairs with the calves averaging 300 lbs. (2.0 AD) grazing for one day, we would have 100 AD. We just adjust the value to get an estimated amount of forage consumed for the day. A cow-calf pair that is valued at 2.0 AD will eat approximately the same amount of forage as two 700-lb. yearlings. Clear as mud?
So what does this grazing chart do? It can help you plan a grazing rotation. Each paddock is listed and shows the dates that each paddock is grazed. You can estimate when and where you will move the herd and try to plan out your graze periods and rest periods. It can also track precipitation throughout the year. This is important when looking back as precipitation can affect yield a great deal throughout your grazing season. We also take into consideration how heavily the paddock was grazed. Some years, depending on precipitation, I might leave more or less residue. The chart can record this.
When the grazing season is complete, we add up all of the ADAs for each paddock. We can then convert that into dollars per acre, which is the universal language for farmers. This helps us see the difference in production between different paddocks.
Is a white clover/fescue pasture better or worse than an alfalfa/brome paddock? If you were to start keeping track of the ADAs you will know. This is valuable information, as it can help us predict what potential new land might produce and can help use determine what rent we can afford to pay. If we want to determine a margin, we better know the yield.
There are charts that you fill in by hand or computerized versions. You just need to look for one.
Would you ever take off a crop of wheat without knowing the yield? I think not, yet farmers continually take off a crop of pasture without this important information. Don’t be “that farmer”! Manage your pasture with intensive cell grazing and use a grazing chart. Your bottom line will love it.