An appropriate question would be: "What are you doing to efficiently manage the costs of the three major farm inputs: feed, fuel and fertilizer?"
This was the gist of the 2011 Alabama Forages Conference that took place during December 2011 in Northeast Alabama. The event organizers and sponsors did an outstanding job of putting together the program which was designed to promote ideal grazing and forage practices; and with the array of expert speakers and current farm situations, their message was right on target. Although the approach of each speaker varied, the message delivered was always the same: given the current cost of feed, fuel and fertilizer, livestock farmers must identify ways to more efficiently utilize farm resources and manage to achieve production efficiencies.
Given the current prices of feeds, fuel and fertilizer, the most practical strategy for livestock producers is to become increasingly reliant on quality forages to provide nutrition for livestock and utilize legumes to provide nitrogen for the soils. Whether you raise goats, cattle or sheep, cost of production continues to increase. As of January 1, 2012, some sample prices for the three Fs were: pelleted non-medicated goat feed - $9.75/50 lb. bag, soybean hull pellets - $200/ton, corn gluten pellets - $215/ton, diesel fuel - $3.65/gallon, 19-19-19 fertilizer - $584/ton. At these prices, a farmer faces a difficult challenge feeding livestock grain feed and using diesel fuel in a tractor to fertilize pastures in order to harvest hay later in the year.
Quality forages include grasses and legumes. The bad news is that to produce grass with high nutrient value (greater than 10 percent) generally requires fertilizer with nitrogen. The good news is legumes fix nitrogen into the soil, eliminating the need for fertilizer with nitrogen. The other good news is legumes tend to be high in nutrient value (14-16 percent) and all forms of livestock generally enjoy grazing legumes. So mixed forage production with grasses and legumes in the same pasture is a win/win situation. Given legumes fix nitrogen into the soil, thereby eliminating the need for fertilizer with nitrogen; this also eliminates nitrogen runoff into waterways from the nitrogen in fertilizer. Yes, poultry litter is an option, but it is only readily available in certain regions of the state where large-scale poultry production is prevalent.
Choices for grass varieties in pastures vary; everyone seems to have a different preference so there is no reason to address that issue in this article. As forage manager for your farm, only you know what you and your animals prefer.
Common forms of legumes include clovers (red, white and crimson) and sericea lespedeza. Yes, there are other legumes including soybeans, peanuts and chicory, but sometimes they are expensive to establish and may not be practical for all situations. As a farm manager, you must choose what works best for your situation.
Rotational grazing in conjunction with adequate pastures is a way to reduce or eliminate the need for use of grain feeds and hay as a primary source of nutrition for livestock. Additional fencing (temporary or permanent) is required to utilize rotational grazing, but in the long-run is still cheaper than feeds and hay as a primary source of nutrition. Certain stages of production for your animals (creep feeding and lactating animals) are likely to require supplemental feeding in the form of grain feeds and hay, and the same can be said during winter months when forage availability is limited; "supplemental" being the key word. "Stockpiling" forages is a term involving refraining from grazing certain paddocks or areas most of the year and saving those areas to graze during winter months when grasses and legumes are dormant. This should minimize reliance on grain feeds and hay except for supplemental feeding.
These are just a few suggestions to reduce dependency of feed, fuel and fertilizer. If your farm is able to provide adequate forage production, utilize rotational grazing and stockpiling of forages, and utilizes legumes for grazing and nitrogen production, then the need for operating a tractor is significantly reduced due to the fact it is not needed to mow forages or harvest hay, or spread fertilizer. The primary use for a tractor at this point is likely to be occasional over-seeding of pastures and possibly moving round bales of hay from storage to pastures where occasionally needed. These combined management strategies are a valid way to minimize the need for the three Fs.
What ways do you see to manage the three Fs?
Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.