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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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 www.reddsummit.com - that's Redd with two D's or call Jess at 801-360-6431