It's the grim reality of farming in the 21st century. Rising costs of farming inputs coupled with falling commodity prices have forced producers in all sectors of farming to tighten their belts and to search for even more creative ways to cut operating costs.

Livestock farming is no exception.

Perhaps no other livestock expert understands this challenge better than Don Ball, a forage crop expert and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils who has spent the last 33 years advising Alabama livestock producers on how to use forage and hay as efficiently as possible.

Back in 1976 when he started his career as an Alabama Extension forage crops specialist, Ball would have advised any producer to make maximum use of forage crops — particularly legumes — while minimizing the use of hay. Thirty-three years later, he considers this advice not only invaluable to producers but even critical to their long-term survival.

In fact, all this experience has helped Ball discern another hard truth: Producers who undervalue forages do so at their own peril. Compared with hay, forages are the superior feed source.

"To tell you the truth, the amount of time (during the year) that a producer feeds hay is one, if not the best, indicator of the profitability of a livestock operation," he says.

And while hay costs more to harvest and store, the advantages associated with maximized grazing are not just a matter of simple economics. Enhanced grazing also enables producers to close a critical environmental loop, which, as it turns out, also carries economic benefits.

"The reason is that anytime you concentrate animals, you're concentrating nutrients too," he says. "Animals consume a lot of nutrients, most of which don't stay in their bodies but is excreted in the form of urine and manure."

Also, compared with hay, forage is less mature and fibrous and more digestible to livestock than hay and, therefore, is more cost-effective.

There's an additional issue that Ball emphasizes to growers — planting forage legumes, especially clovers.

"The reason a lot of people haven't done it is because it involves more effort and management," he says.

Yes, legumes involve closer management, but the time and effort spent planting legumes can pay big dividends, especially in terms of fixing nitrogen, Ball says, adding that in pastures, clovers are the most suitable type of legume to grow.

"When nitrogen prices are high, the natural tendency for producers is to cut back on fertilizer applications," he says.

But in the end, this proves self-defeating. On the other hand, legumes help producers around that challenge.

"In cases where you have a grass/legume mixture, you'll usually produce more forage than you would grass alone that isn't fertilized well with nitrogen," Ball says.

Granted, there are challenges with establishing a sufficient legume stand, namely in assuring higher levels of soil phosphorous and potassium.

But this extra effort offers distinct advantages over the long haul.

"You get to the point where you have much better animal performance but without the added expense," Ball says.

Moreover, the presence of legumes also helps producers address a perennial problem associated with long-term fertilizer use — soil acidification, which requires frequent lime application.

"To grow legumes, you need to get the phosphorous and potassium levels where they need to be," he says. "With good grazing management, you also get more even recycling of nutrients, so you're not having to apply as much phosphorous and potassium."

The end result: Good production and low cost as well as a more environmentally friendly livestock operation.

Ball's research with his colleague, Walter Prevatt, an Extension livestock economist, has confirmed the value of legumes. A stocker cattle study involving 37 forage grass systems revealed that the most consistently profitable involved legumes.

Indeed, among the top 10 lowest cost systems, seven included legumes.

"What accounts for this? The reduced nitrogen fertilizer use, better animal performance and the extended grazing season associated with legumes," Ball says.

To assist livestock producers with pastureland grazing management decisions, Ball, along with colleagues from three other land-grant universities and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, wrote and published a comprehensive manual titled "Extending Grazing and Reducing Stored Feed Grain Needs."