The Casual Cattle Conversations Podcast

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October 11, 2021  

Maximizing Returns when Grazing Corn Stalks

Grazing corn stalks isn't new but there are new data that could make you rethink some management strategies. Dr. Jim MacDonald shares information on grazing periods, supplementation and the soil benefits that occur from this management practice.

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Redd Summit  00:05

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Shaye Koester  00:05

So to start off, would you please explain your background in the ranching industry?


Jim MacDonald  00:10

Sure, I grew up probably about 50 miles from where you grew up just in a different era. So I grew up on a cow-calf operation in South Central North Dakota, just south of Bismarck, and was very involved in the day to day activities there all the way through college. I got my undergraduate degree at North Dakota State University, and then kind of switched and went to the other end of the industry and focused on the feedlot industry. Did a feedlot management internship program here at the University of Nebraska. Both Master's and PhD at University of Nebraska, I spent six years in the Texas A&M system and then I've been back on faculty at UNL since 2012.


Shaye Koester  00:57

Okay, so you're on faculty at UNL, but what is your position there? What do you kind of do today?


Jim MacDonald  01:03

Yeah, so my job title is beef cattle production systems, which I always say is the best job title in the world. Because, I can do anything I want, as long as it's related to beef cattle, and I call it a system. Okay? What that means functionally, is if you think about the segments of the industry, so cow-calf, post, weaning, and then feedlot, and then the end product, I'm usually trying to tie together two or more of those segments, right? So we start with a weaned calf. You know, what is the optimal rate of gain that you want that weaned calf and what are the consequences when they go into the feedlot? And even, you know, what are the what, what does that do to marbling potential, those types of things. So I span everything from from cow-calf production, all the way through the feedlot in my research program.


Shaye Koester  01:58

Awesome, that's a pretty neat job title, or you have a lot of flexibility there. So that's pretty neat. So today, I really kind of wanted to talk about grazing corn stalks. So what are your experiences, you know, maybe on the research side, but specifically with helping ranchers in this area?


Jim MacDonald  02:16

Yeah, so when I started at UNL, well, first of all, grazing corn stocks is not new, right? I mean, we've been doing that for generations. But as we've become more specialized, and especially, you know, we're a couple generations in where the integrated farm is kind of a thing of the past, and people have generally specialized and, you know, they're either farmers or ranchers. Some people are ranchers that farm to feed cattle and some people are farmers that have cattle around to eat extra feed, right? So kind of most people fall into one of those two categories. So, you know, as the as yields have increased, and the intensity of production is increased on farming acres, and quite frankly, as we've had more grasslands converted into property and acres, you know, that opens up a lot of questions about how do those two things go together? Right? So from a farming perspective, what am I giving up, if I allow cows to graze my cornfield, and I would say the old, I'm going to call it a paradigm that the old strategies of grazing corn residue, you know, is is perhaps not relevant today. You know, in when I was young, certainly there was a lot of concern about corn left in the field. Unless you have a young or inexperienced grain cart driver that spills, we don't really worry about residual corn because the harvesting combine is so efficient now that there's very little grain left in the cornfield. So there's been some changes over time, but it's not a new concept. But I would say, you know, the biggest thing that we've done is try to reconcile that tug of war between the cropping systems and the cattle systems.


Shaye Koester  04:16

Okay, so like, with your job position, how are you directly involved in this process whether working with ranchers or farmers or how are you involved in that process?


Jim MacDonald  04:30

So primarily from a research standpoint. Okay, so we generate the data that then can help answer questions by producers. I don't personally have an extension appointment. So producers don't see me out at meetings and those types of things, because that's not in my job description. I have a research and teaching appointment, which keeps me on campus most of the time, but I work very closely with extension. I have a colleague by the name of Mary Danowski. She does a fabulous job on the extension side really taking the research that she and I do together most of the time and extending that to producers so that they have the answers that they're looking for.


Shaye Koester  05:11

Okay, so going back to grazing corn stalks as this feed resource. So can you talk a little bit about the nutritional value of grazing corn stalks?


Jim MacDonald  05:24

Sure. So let me start, you have to start with the plant, okay. There's about 50% of the plant is grain by weight, actually, just a little more than that. And about 50% is forage. The forage that's in the corn plant, when it's harvested varies dramatically. Okay, so you don't, you won't see a cow out consuming the stem of a corn stalk unless she's really, really hungry. So the nutritional value of the stem is not quite zero, but it's close to zero. On the other extreme, the husk that surrounds the corn cob, right, that's got a digestibility that can approach 70%. So you're talking about the digestibility, of very lush spring grass, okay, so it's, it's very different. And the cow is very good at selecting those best parts. So the best parts of the corn plant are the husk and leaf. And so that's, if there's any corn out there, she'll find that, especially an experienced cow, but then they'll consume the husk in the leaf, we don't recommend that you ask them to consume the stem. What you need to remember is that grazing corn residue is very different than bailing and harvesting corn stalks, because the cow is able to select for the husk of the leaf in the field. And if you bailed at all, and you're forcing her to eat it, now you're forcing her to eat some stem. Okay, so the nutritional value back to your original question. The nutritional value that we put on from an energetic assumption standpoint, is we use about a 55% TDN for cows grazing corn residue. If you bail corn residue, and you put it in a bale feeder, or, you know forced them to eat it, somehow we use a 43. And really, and so nutritionally, the difference between a 55 TDN and a 43 TDN diet is huge. Okay, but the reason that those two things are so different, is because the stem is is really lowly digestible compared to the rest of the plant.


Shaye Koester  07:52

Okay, so you've talked about these nutritional differences. So when they're grazing corn stalks, what needs to be supplemented with that, you know, mineral wise, or other feed sources?


Jim MacDonald  08:04

Yeah. That's an excellent question and probably maybe one of the most misunderstood or we have trouble getting producers to believe us when we say that a non lactating, so the calf has been weaned, gestating pregnant cow does not need any additional protein or energy supplement when she's grazing corn residue. And when people first hear that, you know, you look at the residue, and it's brown and you think it's low, low quality feed, they've got to need something, right. But we have a lot of data on that class of animal, okay. So she doesn't have a calf on her side, she's not lactating, and she's already pregnant. That is the lowest of her annual nutrient requirement. That time is her lowest requirement in terms of nutrient requirements throughout her production cycle. And she just doesn't need any protein or energy now mineral, vitamin premix, all of those things that you would provide during the summer, yes, we would recommend that you provide those. Now, there's caveats to that, right. You and I grew up in North Dakota, grazing corn stalks in North Dakota is maybe a little bit more variable than it is as you move south and into say, for example, southeastern Nebraska, where you can probably get from November to March and perhaps without any significant weather that would cut people from grazing, right? So naturally, the assumption is or when you go out if you get a significant snow, that'll inhibit them from grazing and then we need to provide some additional protein and energy. Snow itself. Cows are pretty good at digging through the snow. Snow itself doesn't really inhibit their grazing. too much, but ice will. So if you have an ice storm, then we need to start thinking about providing some additional supplement. Or if you have extremely cold temperatures, then for maintenance requirements are gonna go up and perhaps need to provide some additional energy and protein.


Shaye Koester  10:18

Okay, awesome. So thank you for going through and kind of explaining the nutritional side of it. So as we kind of shift and look at the management, what would you say the common mistakes producers make when they're using or grazing corn stocks?


Jim MacDonald  10:34

I think I don't want to call it a mistake, but I think producers tend to think in animals per acre. And what they need to be thinking is animals per bushel. Okay, so remember, I said that the corn plant is about 50% forage and 50% grain? Well, I know what the yield on a field is, I then know what the forage availability is. And so there's a much... it's a very different grazing scenario, if you've produced 150 bushel to the acre corn versus 200 or 250 bushels to the acre corn. Okay, the easy math in my head is is 200 bushels to the acre. If you look at the amount of husk and leaf on for bushel grain produced, it's about 16. Okay, so for every bushel of grain, you get about 16 pounds of husk and leaf, which is primarily what we're going to eat. We've assumed through experience about a 50% grazing efficiency, which is fairly standard. That means you're going to get eight pounds of reasonable forage per bushel of grain produce. Okay, so 200 bushel corn, you're going to have 1600 pounds of forage available to you. Many producers think on an aum basis. Okay, so how much feed does it require to be the 1000 pounds of beef animal for a month, and by definition, at least in the Nebraska system, that 780 pounds of air dried forage. Okay, so at 1600 pounds there is a little over 280 aums per acre there, right? versus if you had 100 bushel to the acre, you would only have one aum per acre for that, right? So moving away from thinking about, I have x number of acres of corn, to thinking about, this was my yield on these acres of corn and then back calculating how many AUM do you have available, and then either how many cows you can put on? Or if you have a set number of cows, how long they raised?


Shaye Koester  12:57

Okay, so how, looking at this as a big picture view, how would you say that grazing corn stalks benefits the rancher, if they're able to use this as a feed resource, because not everyone is able to use it.


Jim MacDonald  13:12

I think we need to be talking about it. As we think about communicating with our consumer. We need to be talking about multi use how ruminants and cattle specifically allow us to use more of what we're producing in an efficient manner. Okay. From the ranchers perspective, how much additional cost is there in grazing the residue? You've already put all the inputs into the corn, you've already harvested the corn. So your choices are, you can either graze the residue or do nothing with it. It is by far, even if you're paying yourself or you're renting, you know, in Nebraska on the eastern part of the state where supply and demand, there's way more supply of corn residue than there are cows to consume it, you know, you're probably talking about eight to $10 breaker. If you move west where the relative concentration of cows goes up, and the supply of corn residue goes down, all of those acres are utilized. Maybe you're at $20-25 per acre, right? There's gonna be somebody listening to your podcast that says those numbers aren't right. But in general, you know, supply and demand dictates how much you're going to pay either yourself or rental rates for corn residue. If you look at the amount of digestible forage, so on a TDN basis use that 55 TDN times the pounds of forage that are available. Corn residue is by far the cheapest feed resource that a rancher will have access to. Okay, that's without trucking and some of those types of things but you know, it's probably equivalent, think about just grass hay, you know, you'd probably be paying $35 a ton for grass hay, to get to the equivalent to most of the economics of corn residue grazing day. That's the number one benefit for that period of time when cows can be out on corn stalks. That is your cheapest feed probably in the entire year. From a bigger picture, if you look at, and this is a little bit further away from from direct ranching, right, but if you think about resource utilization, increasing global population, diminishing actually number of grazing acres and even farming acres as the population increases. We've got to be more efficient. And I'm going to take it one step further. I know greenhouse gas production isn't always popular within the ranching community, but it's something that is on the minds of the public overall, especially the impacts of beef on greenhouse gas emissions, right. So what's the the environmental footprint, you've already invested all of the energy, carbon and gas emissions, all of those things in the corn crop? Now we've used that to generate beef. I mean, the improvement in efficiency for the entire production system, by utilizing that residue is huge. So there's a lot of benefits. I'm a big proponent of grazing corn residue. We talked about the impacts on yield some if you want to, but that in most systems, there's really no reason not to be utilizing the residue if it's available to you.


Shaye Koester  16:49

Well, I really appreciate how you took that. I mean, a lot of times, I've always heard this topic, you know, more focused on the economic side for the rancher like and like you talked about, there's a huge impact there. But really looking at looking at it for our resource management and being able to explain that to consumers. I think that is very important, especially as we look at, you know, an industry where we're going in the direction of traceability.


Jim MacDonald  17:16

Yeah. So, I mean, we're, we're attempting to generate those numbers that people can use to model right, so we're set kind of segmenting out segmenting the production system and looking at at least brome grass, that's what we have access to in eastern Nebraska. You know, summer grazing very traditionally. Be frank, the the greenhouse gas emissions for corn crop that's already been established. But what hasn't been established is where the emissions from cow grazing that corn residue, dry lot of cows, cows grazing a cover crop. So we're trying to do all of these different segments for the cow, for a backgrounded in calf, and then in the feedlot, and you can put those together and approximate at least, you know, we have approximations for carbon footprint for the beef industry. And those are probably okay. But when you start talking about traceability, you know, how does my system impact that environmental footprint? We're very close to having those numbers where you can change the production system and see how that changes the overall outcome in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.


Shaye Koester  18:29

That sounds like something that'll be a really needed resource once it comes out as far as a model standpoint for producers. So as we look at managing cattle on corn stalks, typically, you know, how long can cattle graze corn stalks? I know that might vary between operation but what are those kind of timelines? Or when do you need to realize that, hey, it's time to pull them off this field?


Jim MacDonald  18:57

Right. So soon as the corn is harvested, right? There's a bottleneck there for a lot of producers, especially if they own the corn field. They're trying to get harvest done and they're trying to get cows out on corn stalks and they've got to get the fencing and the water set. You know, there's a bit of a labor bottleneck right away in the fall, but nutritionally or from a management standpoint, you know, as soon as you can get into the field after it's been harvested. And then it's really weather dependent. You know, if you have a major storm and you know, there's six or eight inches of snow and you can't get out and graze or have an ice storm, at times, having a management plan where you can either feed or supplement in the field. Again, depending on where you are, where you and I grew up, you know, once once the snow comes often it's there for the remainder of the winter. That's not necessarily the case, as you go back further south, so it kind of depends on where you're at, in terms of weather effects. And then it's really Thinking about it in terms of aums? How much forage do I have available to me? And what is my grazing demand on that forage? How many cows do I have and that will dictate how long you can stay in a field, there are some benefits to moving from field to field giving them access to a fresh field. And the reason for that is when she goes in, when a cow, an experienced cow goes into a cornfield, she's going to find any grain that's left there, which is normally very little, then she's going to eat the husk, and then the leaf. So her diet is changing from the first day that she goes into the cornfield until the last day that she comes out of the corn field, right, so the proportion of grain plus leaf, and then cob stem, what you really want to try to avoid. Okay, so if you're moving, for example, from pivot to pivot, you've given her access to fresh husk fresh grain, fresh leaf, right? So there is some advantages to moving cows throughout that grazing period. One of the questions that we've really taken a hard look at is how long can you graze into the spring? There's kind of an unwritten rule of thumb in Nebraska, that you have to have them out by March 15, to get ready for planting and so that they don't compact the soil. The data do not support that. Okay, so we've grazed well into April. And the idea is, you know, our spring grass is going to be ready the end of April. And we really want to minimize that gap in between corn stock grazing, and when she can go to grass, because then you got to feed supplemental hay and you get more expensive feed in there. But if it's going to cause damage to the subsequent crop, by leaving her in there when it's muddy, that's a problem from the cropping systems perspective. So we've worked really hard at trying to create the worst case scenario. So you take our grazing or stocking recommendations for corn residue, we actually doubled that in the spring when it's muddy, and tried to beat up experimental fields as badly as we could. And then we come in with soybeans, now soybeans are fairly robust plants. That that's a normal cropping system in Nebraska and we can't find any reduction in yield because there's no reduction in yield there. We even went so far as to hold cattle out of the field until it rained in the spring. And then we stock them so heavily, you would think it was like a feedlot pen. Okay, so we put a whole bunch of cattle in for a very short intensive period of time, we still couldn't find a reduction in yield. We get a lot of pushback on that and I mean, we have clay loam soils in this part of the state, right so as you move west and you get less rainfall and in sandier soils I understand there's those differences But, this perception that you have to be off by March 15th, the data just simply do not support. So I don't think there's an end date where you have to have the cattle off until it's time to go in and plant the next crop in that field.


Shaye Koester  23:30

Awesome. I appreciate you sharing the typical perspective that this is how we've always done it, this is the unwritten rule as well as the data side of it. So as we look at grazing corn stalks are their you know, any toxicity issues, any of those things that producers need to be aware of before their cattle go out there and how can they make sure that those issues aren't there before they turn cattle out?


Jim MacDonald  23:57

Yeah, so I've never I've never seen a toxicity issue on corn residue. You know, the two that you might be worried about would be mycotoxins in the corn but if the corn is harvested and they're not really consuming the cob, probably not going to see that. We do get questions about nitrates but nitrates well for one you really have to segment. We're talking about a very specific that the corn has been harvested and you're grazing the residue. Okay, so this is a different scenario than grazing, drought, stress corn, you know, haying corn that's been drought stressed and didn't make corn. different situation. Okay. So most people will fertilize based on an expected yield and if the crop actually made that yield then that nitrogen has been utilized and there's really no concerns for nitrates. Even if the crop has had a lower yield, maybe didn't get quite as much rain as what you were expecting. And there is some residual nitrogen there, that nitrate accumulation? Well, first of all, the plant is dead, right? So its production cycles is over, those nitrates are probably going to senesce out of the plant back into the ground. And if there is any nitrate accumulation that's in the bottom part of the stem. And one thing I hope that I've emphasized is you don't want them eating the stem, right? So there's really no nitrate, I've never seen an issue with nitrates in harvested residue, corn residue. Now, let me put a caveat on that, because we do have some areas, especially where you and I are from and into the west where there is some drought issues this year. And I've had some questions and tried to help some people on grazing drought stress corn, that's really a different circumstance, because now you're fertilized based on this expected yield. And that yield may actually be zero, right? And that plant may be instead of knee high by the Fourth of July, it may never get more than the knee high. Okay, well, there's nitrates accumulating in that plant. They're probably still in the lower part of the stem. But we want to, we want to approach that with a with a lot more caution. The worst case scenario from a nitrate standpoint is if you have drought, stressed corn, and you swap it and you try to hay it. Because now you have all of that nitrate that's in the stem and if you go feed those bales to a cow, then right nitrates all there. Okay, so I want to be very clear when I say there's really no concerns with nitrates, that is in a very normal year where you had a normal corn crop, and there's residue in the field after harvest. That's a very different thing from drought stress corn.


Shaye Koester  26:57

Okay, so and you just want to be clear on why we can't feed these nitrates what's the impact on that pregnant cow through feeding nitrates? Sure.


Jim MacDonald  27:06

Before I get myself in trouble, we can actually feed some nitrates. Okay, so from the from the rumen microbes standpoint, nitrate is a source of nitrogen. And so just like we can feed urea, they have the ability to use the that nitrogen that's in nitrate. The problem is that the microbes that convert, it's actually nitrite into ammonia, they need time to adapt. And so we can increase the nitrate load slowly and get along. Okay. The problem is if we do that all in a day, and so we turn cows out onto a high nitrate field or pasture of some kind, the nitrite accumulates and spills over into the blood. And it keeps the compound is the conversion of hemoglobin into met-hemoglobin don't want to get into the biochemistry too much. But basically, hemoglobin can't carry oxygen and they asphyxiate. By the way, it's the same process that turns your meat brown in the refrigerator in the shelf. So production of met hemoglobin in the blood, and they can't carry oxygen and they asphyxiate. So there's some indication I think, probably some debate about how much sooner you will have abortions before the cow actually dies. But I don't want to get into either one of those circumstances I want to be conservative and stay out of the nitrate situation. Or if I'm forced to use high nitrate plants, like some people, quite frankly. I mean, if that's the feed that they have available to them, then I want to be very careful about how I do and adapt them and under the guidance of a nutritionist, preferably.


Shaye Koester  29:09

Absolutely. So well thank you, first of all for going into depth on that and then mentioning in the guidance of nutritionists, because that's something that's valuable for all ranchers to have and need as a resource. So switching gears a little bit, you've talked a little bit about the impact of soil health with grazing corn stocks, but you do you just want to kind of talk about that overall about how does grazing corn stalks impacts the soil health?


Jim MacDonald  29:37

Yeah, so if you know if you ask the agronomist how you should price grazing corn residue. Often you will hear that you need to account for nutrients leaving with the cow. But I think the part that that we shouldn't expect the agronomist to understand is it that cow is it maintenance. By definition, maintenance is no gain or loss in body weight, right? That means that she's not removing any nitrogen nutrients from the field. So there's some some carbon turnover. But if it is only 55% digestible, about half of what she's consuming ends up deposited back on the field. And quite frankly, in probably a better form, not probably in a more useful form to the soil than the original corn residue was anyway. There's not much nitrogen, there's some nitrogen that's probably tied up in the residue itself. And then you're probably bringing in more micro mineral and phosphorus through the supplement than what she's consuming anyway or what's leaving with her anyway. Okay, so that's the first thing to remember from a soil standpoint is the cow is at maintenance, she's not taking anything with her. And from a nutrient standpoint, in terms of carbon turnover for for the soil itself, one of the advantages of having cows out on residue is the soil gets to take advantage of the microbes from the cow. Okay, so the feces that are deposited back out on the soil, actually benefit the soil and benefit carbon turnover in the soil, I think we have data to very clearly show that. Really no change in terms of organic matter content, or soil organic carbon is the measurement that we would use. And these are on fields that have been grazed for 20 years. Okay, so corn-soybean rotation, so they're grazed ever the same field graze every other year, for for the past twenty years. You know, the concern, the normal concern is that there is a loss and subsequent yield. The other thing that you have to remember is that in high producing fields, this isn't every field, right, but if you're producing 200, or 250, bushels to the acre of corn, there is a lot of residue left on that field. And farmers do stuff, too, they do things to manage that residue, right? I know, of a friend who goes in with a moldboard plow and turns it over about once a decade, right, just to turn all that residue over. We don't really want to recommend that we'd much rather maintain long term, no till farming practices. Well, some people go in with a shredder, let the cow do the work for you. That's what I would say, in those high producing fields, let the cow do the work for you. She's probably only removing somewhere between 15 and 20% of the biomass that's out there anyway. So in our in our long term research studies, we've actually seen an improvement in subsequent soybean yield two bushel to the acre. So again, I don't want to I don't want to extrapolate that to, you're going to see an improvement in yields, regardless of your cropping system. But in a very normal corn soybean cropping system, we have a lot of data that record that suggests an improvement in subsequent soybean yield. When you let the cow remove some of that residue. That's probably the biggest benefit, from the producer standpoint, that there's some of these other soil health, especially on the microbial side, that's actually benefiting from having that cow out there.


Shaye Koester  33:41

Awesome. Thank you for going through that more in depth. But as we kind of round out this interview and conversation, just in summary, could you please explain, you know, the main points that producers need to be aware of when they're grazing corn stalks, just to kind of summarize everything?


Jim MacDonald  33:59

Yeah, the first. The first thing is, remember the class of animal that you're that you're grazing. In our discussion today, you know, we've been very specific about non lactating gestating a dry cow that's pregnant in a fall calving system that that you know, you would potentially use on your ranch Shaye. You could have a lactating cow out on corn stalks, but then we would we would have a supplementation recommendation because she's going to need additional protein and energy for that lactation requirements and for rebreeding. Okay, so class of livestock, we didn't talk about the backgrounded and calf but you can also utilize corn residue for weaned calves. Again, there would have to be some supplementation strategy associated with that. Second major point is the amount of residue that you have available to graze is driven by the corn yield, you know, corn yield, you know how much residue that you have out there and you can plan accordingly. Adjusting the number of animals that you want to have out there and shortening the number of days or less animals for longer days, you can do either of those two things. We're not really concerned about residual corn in most situations down corn. And so there's some specialized situations you have a windstorm or something, we have a lot of down corn. But that the old concerns about adapting cows to corn residue, if that field has been successfully harvested, there's really no concerns about that anymore. And then finally, we think there's more benefit to grazing corn residue in terms of both the environmental implications and soil health implications. We just don't see any downside to that. And in fact, we think it's more of a benefit than a hindrance. So tremendous resource. I think I think we've got a lot left to learn in the integrated cropping livestock system, and his acres become more the supply of acres diminish some, which we expect to continue to happen. We'll have to be more efficient at utilizing those acres for two purposes.


Shaye Koester  36:03

Well, awesome. Thank you for being on the show today. Is there anything else you would like to add before we wrap up?


Jim MacDonald  36:12

Look forward to seeing you in class next week.


Redd Summit  36:14

Are you experiencing a bit of a drought on your grazing lands?  As mentioned earlier, my friend Jess at Redd Summit Advisors understands how hard it can be on your operation during the dry years. She's helping many of your neighbors with PRF Insurance - Pasture, Rangeland and Forage Insurance. Jess can help you with this USDA program to protect your ranch when there isn't enough rain. Not every ranch is the same, so she looks at historical rainfall data in your area and focuses coverage on the driest months. SO you can be happy when it rains, covered when it doesn't and make sure your family can stay on the land for generations to come. The deadline for 2022 coverage is Dec 1st, so give Jess a call at 801-360-6431 for an analysis on your place. To learn more, check out - that's Redd with two D's or call Jess at 801-360-6431

October 4, 2021  

Ranching Differences: South Africa to North Dakota


Elsabe discusses the differences in ranching in America vs. South Africa, as well as how she balances her own business with the ranch and her family.

She's a rancher, entrepreneur, wife, mother, dreamer and action taker. Originally from South Africa, Elsabe Hausauer lives an inspiring life and currently ranches with her family in North Dakota.

She shares an empowering story of building your own life and being grateful for what you have.

September 27, 2021  

Maintaining Gut Health in Weaned and Backgrounded Calves

Gut health is crucial to a calf's ability to perform. In this episode, Shelby Roberts discusses how you can set your herd up to have optimum gut health throughout their lifetime but specifically through the weaning and backgrounding periods.


Listen on all major podcast platforms.



September 13, 2021  

Regenerative Ranching: Why is this the future and how to get started

Ranchers are true stewards of the land and have been caring for their resources and livestock from the beginning. However, there is more that can be done and we have been hearing the words regenerative agriculture for some time now. 

In this episode, Steve Rhines and Hugh Aljoe with the Noble Research Institute share their knowledge and experience with regenerative ranching practices. They explain what it is, why it will be a huge part of ranching now and in the future, and what it looks like for different producers. 

Listen on your favorite podcast app and find a link to the transcript and all other episodes on



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Shaye Koester  0:08  

Hey, hey it's Shaye Koester and I'm your host for the Casual Cattle Conversations podcast where we foster innovation and enthusiasm in the ranching industry through sharing the stories and practices of different ranchers and beef industry leaders. Be sure to be a greater part of this podcast and become involved on my social media pages. Follow cattleconvos on Instagram, Facebook and tik tok or Shaye Koester on LinkedIn to join the conversations around the challenges we face as ranchers and how we can overcome them. You can also find more information about this podcast, all my episodes and how to partner with me on this show, by going to my website, With that, thanks for tuning in, and let's see who our guests is today. 


Red Angus Association of America  1:09  

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Shaye Koester  1:39  

Alrighty folks, thank you for tuning in again today. It's great to have you on here again. If you're a new listener, welcome to the show. Today we are going to be discussing regenerative ranching. So I brought on two experts from the Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma. Today, visiting with me on the show is Steven Rhines, and Hugh Aljoe. These two individuals truly possess the background, knowledge and experience to explain what regenerative ranching is and why it's important to your operation, whether that is that relates to profitability, the ability to pass your land down to the next generation, or really just looking at your soil health and quality right now. This is a topic that I truly believe is important and we always need to continue improving our stewardship. We are already great stewards of the land, but we can always continue to improve. I think these two individuals do a tremendous job of explaining the topic of regenerative agriculture and providing some tips and advice on what practices you can look at maybe implementing now and how they will impact your operation. So with that, let's get on with the episode. 


Steve Rhines  2:01  

Hi Shaye, how are you? 


Shaye Koester  3:11  

Oh, I can't complain. I'm doing pretty good. 


Steve Rhines  3:14  

It's good to see you again. 


Shaye Koester  3:15  

Yeah, it's been a couple years. 


Hi, Hugh. Thanks for hopping on. I'm Shaye. It's nice to meet you. I appreciate you joining me for this. 


Hugh Aljoe  3:24  

Oh, you bet. Glad to do it. Glad to do it. 


Shaye Koester  3:28  

Well, with that would one of you or both of you please provide a brief background on the history of Noble Research Institute.


Steve Rhines  3:38  

I'd be happy to do that. Noble Research Institute is 75 years old this year. We were formed in 1945 by an oilman philanthropist by the name of Lloyd Noble. He had grown up in this part of the country, and he had seen the consequences of manmade disaster. So we mined the earth pretty extensively, using cotton, as as a monoculture with doing very little to put back into the land. And the idea was land was so cheap. And honestly, it probably wasn't a regular practice at the time, you just took what you needed. And Ardmore the town that we're located in was one of the largest cotton-producing centers in the world for a short period of time. Probably what would happen is the combination of weather will so we're at the tail end of the dustbowl, at this time, and the kind of combination of how we manage the land resulted in a lot of degradative and abandoned land. So people would just move on to something because land was so cheap, and it was really easy for them to stake. About 25 miles from here. They discovered one of the largest domestic findings of oil, and Mr. Noble was a part of that and so he gained his wealth not by inheriting it, but actually working for it and creating two companies by the name of Noble Energy, and Noble Corp. and recently noble energy was just acquired by Chevron, which is one of his legacy companies. But when he started the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, which was named after his father, originally, he set it up for the sole purpose of working with farmers and ranchers to build up the soil. And so they started with doing very simple things like a soil test, to give you the information on what to add back after a growing season, and after harvest, and so, we've progressed on for 75 years, we've done a variety of different things in between. We have always worked with farmers and ranchers, we have always conducted research in one form or another. And we've always effectively tried to work and educate producers on mass, but we've usually done it in a much smaller footprint like Southern Oklahoma and North Texas. In 2019, I took over this position after being here about 18 years. And so we began having a conversation with the board, having a conversation internally, looking at what we should be doing. And what we decided to do is transition into regenerative ranching, which would focus on what Mr. Noble asked us to do when he started us. It also the idea that we should be a national organization and not limited in a geographic footprint. So this board of ours, which still represents probably three quarters, either direct descendants or their spouses have been incredibly engaged throughout this process are committed to following the founders direction. And what we've we've done is, is begin to transition into regenerative ranching.


Shaye Koester  6:47  

Well, that is awesome. And thank you for offering that history. So now on a more personal scale, would each of you offer insight on what your backgrounds' in agriculture are?


Hugh Aljoe  7:01  

All right. Well, my background is, ya know, I grew up in West Texas on a family farm, I went to A&M and got a couple of degrees there and was hired right out of school to work for an international businessman running a cattle operation in East Texas. I did that for 10 years. We did you know a lot of say intensive rotational grazing, tried to try to be as progressive as we could with you know, with the land as well as trying to try to run as many cattle as you could just because the businessman, that was one of his objectives. So you know, we were able to grow the operation to about 1400 cows. From there, I was hired here as a pasture range consultant 25 years ago, been here ever since. I'm primarily working with people on pasture and range issues. In particular, grazing management has been kind of my forte. The last few years, I've been the director of the producer relations, which is our consulting efforts as well as overseeing the range operations here at Noble. 


Shaye Koester  8:10  

Well, awesome, thank you. How about you, Steve,


Steve Rhines  8:13  

Not quite as extensive. I grew up on a very small cow-calf operation. By small I mean, probably a dozen mama cows. My grandfather had upwards of the high 80s. The challenge was, I didn't really care for the state of Oklahoma or cattle when I was a kid and I thought a lot of good opportunities go. I saw myself being in a city and being an engineer. And, that's what I chased in school. So I went to school to become a mechanical engineer and work in the aerospace industry, went on to law school, and then found myself in Ardmore, Oklahoma. So as fate would have it, it's not my choice. It was somebody else's choice and we wound up here and fell in love again with the state. I couldn't be happier to be involved with farming and ranching and cattle production. So it was an underlying calling, which I just didn't appreciate for the better part of my life.


Shaye Koester  9:11  

Well, I'm glad you had the chance to come back and live that out then. So with that regenerative ag is it's a buzzword and there's a lot that can fall into it. So how would you describe regenerative agriculture within the ranching space?


Hugh Aljoe  9:31  

Well you know if we look at regenerative ranching, which is the term that we've coined because our focus is going to be around grazing lands, this would be the process of restoring degraded grazing lands using practices based on ecological principles. And what we really want to be able to do is take some of the practices that we've known to be part of what we'd consider good stewardship and apply them more intentionally in order to focus on restoring you know, the ecological process. Particularly the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy cycle as well as community dynamics, just being sure that we're helping Mother Nature do what she does really well. So what do some of these practices look like, you know, surprisingly to some people is that they look a whole lot like what we're doing when we're trying to apply good, you know, good land stewardship to begin with, we're actually planning for rest and recovery of our pasture land or grasses to grow up before they're actually grazed. Providing the recovery that the plants need, so that we get more photosynthetic activity and, as a result get more biological activity below the surface. Because as the roots grow, so do the associations with the organisms in the soil, in able to be no-till some of the cover crops that we're looking at as diverse mixtures, planting into areas that would have been cropland that have been grazed year after year, trying to minimize the need, reduce drastically the need for things like fertilizer and pesticide, and what we're seeing is we can increase our stock density and grazing affects, you know, a lot of those things we consider problems sort of disappear. They're taking care of them as we're going through our proper management. Those are some examples. Anything else you'd like to add?


Steve Rhines  11:27  

No. I think simply, one of the things that we've looked at is making soil a partner in our operation, I think a lot of times, we just use it to either hold the animals up, or serve as a medium for plants to grow. But it's actually thinking a little bit about how we manage that as the entire system as he talked about. So I've got nothing further to add.


Shaye Koester  11:47  

So when we look at ranching on the business side, what are the main benefits there that ranchers see from adopting some of these practices,


Hugh Aljoe  11:57  

The main benefit that producers have when they begin adopting these practices, is that one, they have reduced the need for some of the inputs that they routinely apply such as chemicals and fertilizer. They also find that, that they begin to work with Mother Nature. You are actually working and using whatever is provided grazing for us, in many instances, trampling some of the materials in order to actually feed organisms within the soil, things that that most people haven't up to this point really considered animals that we need to be feeding. You know, and those organisms within the soil, really begin to add the biology and add to the biology, improving those ecosystem processes that we spoke of early on. I think that's the biggest benefit too is that another benefit is that you also because you're not putting these inputs, you're seeing an extreme reduction in some of the costs that they've used to support their operations. And they're not losing very much of the production, in most cases, whatever they might have seen early on is recovered within a very short period of time.


Shaye Koester  13:04  

Well, thank you for sharing that. Steve, do you have anything else to add?


Steve Rhines  13:09  

I think one of the interesting things is a lot of the pastures look a little different than what they might otherwise look like. In this part of the country look at monoculture. Bermuda grass is our primary warm-season grass, and tend to what you see here is a little bit of a different mix as we actually worked to incorporate forbs legumes into the pasture. And so and my father is one of them. He'll talk about the weediness and how is he going to manage the weeds and what you see in this managed grazing setup, is you intensely graze smaller paddocks and you actually suppress a lot of the weed problems, because the animals find them into their diet, and so they aren't selective anymore, which is exactly the way I eat at a buffet. I'm not allowed to do that anymore. I'm forced in one capacity or another to graze everything equally and as a consequence, a lot of the activities that we've otherwise known becomes unnecessary as Hugh was mentioning.


Shaye Koester  14:08  

Okay, so overall, when we're talking ROI, would you say it's there for these practices?


Hugh Aljoe  14:15  

Most definitely, I mean, that's, that's what were some of the questions is, what's the cost on the infrastructure, and really refers to make good use of what you already have. That's where we need to start when most people should start to buy themselves just a little bit of time understanding and trying to learn what regenerative ranching is about. Understand the ecosystem processes as well as the soil health principles. What are we really trying to use and once you get a little practice at applying grazing management, maybe using cover crops to some degree, you really begin to get a feel for what you're trying to accomplish. At that point, then you can come in with a plan in order to phase in what you need to, so it's not as if it's an, what I would call them,  extreme inconvenience or financial burden in order to get started. 


Shaye Koester  15:08  

Go ahead, Steve,


Steve Rhines  15:09  

I will add the idea that that that is really one of the focal points of our research at the Noble Research Institute is to begin to look at these economic issues. We have roughly 14,000 acres worth of land that's, that's located in the southernmost part of Oklahoma. That's only one geographic reference. It's got a lot of different soil types, it's got a lot of different production value. But the idea is what we need to begin to do is across a larger footprint, do this research to begin to answer a lot of the questions that you just posed. There are different mechanisms. Some people are going to go all in, and that's going to have a certain perhaps infrastructure valuation that they need to be able to put in whether it's water, or portable water, what are those different options? That's what noble needs to be able to do. Historically, we've done this in conventional agriculture is we take a little bit of that risk away from the producer by doing some of that research and then demonstrating on our own lands, we're going to continue to do that as we go forward in this direction.


Shaye Koester  16:12  

Awesome. Well, so Hugh mentioned, you know, producers need to kind of do some research and figure out, you know, what might work best for their operation and gain a better understanding of what regenerative ranching really is? Where can they go for this information, and these contact points to make sure they're getting the right information?


Hugh Aljoe  16:32  

Well, as we look, look out there, here at Noble what we're looking at is trying to find people that have been in the regenerative ranching circles and learning from them to begin with. Then also in a very short period of time, we're hoping to be able to transfer a lot of that information through our own internet, our own website, and our own educational venues. There are entities such as Understanding Ag, the savory and Holistic Management organizations, Ranching for Profit and so these are some of the leaders within the regenerative ranching community that we're gleaning from, and we're happy to be learning from them as well.


Shaye Koester  17:10  

Well, thank you for sharing that. So when we look at producers, as they start to implement these practices, as you've worked with producers, or seen some of their operations, what are some of the challenges they may initially face.


Hugh Aljoe  17:28  

One of the big challenges is making sure that they have a good partner to guide them through, you know, the steps that are going to be necessary in order to have early success, We want to make sure that people have the opportunity to have early wins and if you're partnering with the right people, it makes it really easy. But you know, we want to be able to serve as guides, to those entities and where we've had people that have had the success, that's where they come back. So it's been the most rewarding for me is where to get started, how to start using the resources that they already have. It doesn't mean that for most people, if you see it every day, he may not understand or value what you really have. And when you've got somebody on the outside coming in, and making suggestions, then they have the buy in order to take it and run it. Rather thoughts through us, we provide a little bit of critique and do they implement their, their thoughts and our suggestions or recommendations.


Shaye Koester  18:26  

Thank you. 


Steve Rhines  18:27  

I think another part of that, too, is as that as this grows, it's going to be critically important and it's an extension of what Hugh was mentioning just then it's going to be important to connect each Farmer and Rancher to a like community. We know farmers and ranchers. They're social people. They like to engage, whether it's over at the coffee shop or the donut shop, or if it's a church, you'd like to share what you're doing, you'd like to get that other idea, maybe it's just looking across the fence. But we think that that's a critical piece of this as we go forward is to be able to put these communities together and they can't be we know for a fact that they cannot stretch over large geographies, because of the differences in operations, the difference in soil, the difference in the climate. So the challenge becomes is building these networks close to home so you can relate to your neighbor and what they're going through and see it in your own operation.


Shaye Koester  19:28  

Well, absolutely, you know, it is very valuable to have those people who are close to you kind of seeing some things, seeing some of the things but also having an outside look at your own place too. What would you say the future of ranching looks like then with these regenerative practices?


Steve Rhines  19:49  

Well, we hope our goal is we get a new toolkit for where we're going to go I mean, we know for a fact. So before the call started you and I talked a little bit about working with Dr. Tom field at the University of Nebraska. He was an integral part of our discussions as we strategically planned and where should Noble fit and how does it relate to its history. One of the projects he asked for, that we asked him to do is to look into what's gonna compromise the viability of ranching in the United States as we look into the future. And he really came up with three points, and they're not magic to them. They're just once you hear them, you're like, yeah, I get that. And that's basically, soil productivity in the face of climate variability. The nation's or the producers level of debt, it's at an all-time high, it stretches across all agricultural sectors, it's not limited to ranching it, it is unbelievable. I believe it was in 2015 when we began to exceed $400 billion and it's only grown since 2015. And then the last, this lack of a pipeline, into the future of new people coming into ranching, coming into agriculture, to support this heritage industry for the United States. So if you begin to look at those three areas, any one of them is completely overwhelming, all three of them together is amazing. And so what our role is, is to begin to figure out, how is it that we can connect those dots begin to come up with a set of tools to manage the climate variability and soil productivity, to work on the economics of any operations to ensure that someone who wants to stay on the land can. But there's a second story to that, if I only make enough to get by year to year, what's the first thing I go after, and that's long-term thinking. So we know regenerative ranching, regenerative agriculture requires a long time, a long thought process, a long term planning process, we can't have operations live month to month, year to year, because they can't do that long term planning. And then that last piece really looks at that next generation. And it's the generation that's currently in university, it's also probably that next generation that that sets behind where you are in your own progress. And, and that is a generation that may have a connection to the land, but they also need to be thinking about ranching, or agriculture in a new light. And so as we see these new, and I hate to call them trends, because I think they're starting to eclipse trends, but localized food, knowing where my food comes from being comfortable with the idea that I not only know where it was raised but maybe where it was processed. And so as we get into those ideas, can we build an agricultural system behind that to support and help alleviate these three obstacles to the future of ranching viability?


Shaye Koester  23:02  

Well, that was amazing to hear. And thank you for sharing that there was so much I value in that statement, especially when you do look at the long-term picture. And yes, making sure that we as producers are doing everything we can when we get to have a fully traceable product within the United States. So with that, you two have done a very good job answering all the questions I had, do you have anything else you would like to add? Whether that's about regenerative ranching, ranching in general or Noble?


Steve Rhines  23:35  

I would just say that, and Hugh touched on it earlier. We don't pretend to believe that we're the only ones in this space. Just like agriculture, and just like I would, for the most part, I would say the nonprofit world that that Noble belongs to. It's an unbelievably generous space. And so we've worked really closely with Understanding Ag, Dr. Alan Williams, Gabe Brown, Doug Peterson, Shane, and a lot of those folks have poured into the Noble Research Institute and its employees that to help bring us along. We're also working with savory we're also working with Ranching for Profit. These people have really been the pioneers and in this space, and so we believe that we can complement them. There's a lot of things that Noble can do. A lot of the questions you raised are critical questions to the future of regenerative ranching. And that's the economics. That's the practices built on principles. And then mostly it's farmer and rancher education. We know for a fact that it's going to be a bit of a challenge because many of us grew up in a certain mindset on what ranching looks like, what my pasture should look like, what I do in May of every year, some of those are really big challenges to overcome but the burden is on Noble and these other organizations to continue to work ahead and help answer these questions for farmers and ranchers. Because for the most part, what we're working for is the underlying land. And a lot of people ask the question initially when we were making this transition, but the idea of how big is the grazing land challenge in the United States, 655 million acres, it's the single largest land use of anything in the United States. So when we talk about water quality, water quantity, almost every raindrop passes at one point or another across rangeland. So if we're not doing everything we can to sustain its health bring its health up, then we're missing an opportunity there with the waterside, new markets with regard to carbon, we're not going to explore those, but we should be incredibly versed and how that impacts farmers and ranchers in everything that we're doing, whether it is how you tend to the soil, or ultimately how you measure your progress is going to lend itself to that potential revenue source for farmers and ranchers in the future.


Hugh Aljoe  26:09  

I think you know, when you look at Noble Research Institute, you know, research is in our name, you know, we are here to answer the producer questions. And that's what our objective is using our resources in order to make sure that we're always answering the questions that producers might have, helping them move toward a better, more regenerative state, as early and as quickly as possible. And through that, with financial soundness at the same time.


Shaye Koester  26:36  

Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate everything you both had to offer and taking the time out of your day to be on the show. 


Steve Rhines  26:44  

Thank you. 


Hugh Aljoe  26:45  

It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much. 


Shaye Koester  26:47  

And that's a wrap on that one, folks. Thank you, again, for tuning in. If you got something out of this podcast episode that really hit home for you, or you maybe you have a deeper question that wasn't covered, please go drop that in the comment section of my social media posts. There's a post for this episode, as well as a post before it was published. And there will be a post a couple days after as well. So any of those options, please go drop that question or comment about the episode so that we can have a conversation about it, as well as bringing in the rest of my fans to see what we all think about that as we work to combat some of the challenges that we faced with ranching, or maybe trying to open each other's minds to new ideas and new methods. With that, thank you to Steven and Hugh, for sharing your stories and your expertise on this show. I know I really appreciated it. It really got my mind turning about maybe some things to change or what does the future of ranching really look like? So with that, thank you again, and thank you for listening, and I hope to catch you on the next one. 


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