In an era of spiking input costs, livestock producers are finding themselves in an increasingly tight economic squeeze, forcing them to look for more creative ways to reduce operating costs.

Maximizing pasture forage may offer one especially viable option. Don Ball, an Alabama Extension forage crops specialist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils, discusses the merits of this approach in this series of questions and answers.

Why is maximization of pasture forage so important? For that matter, why is it so important for producers to reduce their reliance on hay?

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for livestock producers to turn a profit.

Input costs have gone up — fertilizer, fuel, feed, among other things. But to make matters worse, livestock prices are not keeping pace with these input prices. In some cases, these prices have even gone down.

These factors have put producers in an increasingly tight squeeze. This will force producers to operate very differently in the future. The old way just doesn't work anymore in terms of turning a profit. Some things will have to be done differently.

That's the reason why I and other forage crop agronomists around the country are encouraging producers to place more emphasis on grazing pasture forage and less on hay usage.

Why is hay increasingly considered such a liability for producers?

The biggest reason is expense. There is only a short time during the year when producers feed hay — typically three or four months. Even so, this costs considerably more than feeding the animals the rest of the year through grazing.

It stands to reason that the more producers reduce their reliance on stored feed and emphasize forage grazing instead, the most cost-efficient and cost-effective their operation will become.

As a matter of fact, I tell producers that the amount of time they spent throughout the year feeding hay is the best — or at least, one of the best — indicators of a livestock operation's profitability.

How does the emphasis on grazing contribute to a more environmentally friendly livestock operation?

Whenever you concentrate animals, you also concentrate nutrients. Animals eat a lot of nutrients but most of these don't stay in their bodies. A high percentage is excreted through urine and manure.

When animals graze pastures, the recycled nutrients are spread over a broad area. To borrow a popular phrase, you are closing the environmental loop.

Over-reliance on hay also results in another environmental disadvantage: The hoof action of animals fed hay on sod tends to damage the sod, often leaving producers with the added challenge of soil erosion in addition to the other expenses.

But as you have stressed time and again, grazing offers other key economic advantages too.

Indeed. It requires much more labor to harvest, store and feed hay than it does when having animals harvest it themselves through grazing.

Aside from that, forage quality of tender young pasture grass is considerably higher than hay. One of the basic facts of forage utilization is that the older and more mature the grass, the more fibrous it is and lower in digestibility, which only reduces its value as a feed source.

Animals simply don't perform as well on hay as they do on pasture.

Weather is another critical element in this picture. Weather conditions directly affect hay production and feeding. But generally speaking, animals typically can harvest forage on their own, regardless of the weather.

Why should legumes be considered as an integral part of any grazing system?

One of the things we've been emphasizing for a long time is the importance of introducing forage legumes whenever possible. However, some producers are reluctant to this because legumes require a higher level of management than forage grasses.

Even so, legumes, beginning with their nitrogen-fixing properties, can offer huge benefits to producers. For example, growing clover, which works especially well in many grass pastures, can reduce or even eliminate the need to apply nitrogen fertilizer.

Moreover, legumes tend to provide better forage quality than grass. So, by growing legumes, you're not only reducing your fertilizer costs but you are also enhancing your pasture's overall performance.

Likewise, with the right legume/grass combination, you may also extend the grazing season, thus reducing the number of days hay will need to be fed.

But as you have pointed out, effective legume/grass combinations also afford producers another advantage.

That's right. When nitrogen prices are high, the natural tendency is for producers to cut back on fertilizer application. The problem is that when you cut back nitrogen fertilizer use, you're not going to get as much forage. But a legume/grass mixture will help you make up for this shortfall. In other words, you will likely produce more forage than you would if you were growing only grass that wasn't adequately fertilized.

Legumes also enable producers to minimize a problem commonly associated with nitrogen fertilizer application: soil acidification.

Also, once you accomplish a few other critical goals — getting your PH, phosphorous and potassium levels where they need to be, while providing good grazing management — you're getting a more even recycling of nutrients, which results in better production performance and reduced costs.

Things begin to work much better. And on top of that, you eventually reduce your stored feed requirements.

Is there any research supporting the use of legumes?

A recent review of Alabama stocker cattle experiments that involved 37 forage systems confirmed the value of legumes. While only 15 of these systems involved legumes, the seven lowest pasture costs per pound of gain included legumes. Eight of the 10 best included legumes.

What accounts for this reduced cost? Reduced need for nitrogen fertilizer, better animal performance and extended grazing season associated with legumes.

Isn't the initial expense effort involved in establishing an adequate legume stand the reason more producers aren't raising legumes?

Yes. Legumes initially require higher levels of phosphorous and potassium in the soil than grasses. They also require a higher soil PH level.

However, the enhanced animal performance and reduced expenses associated with legumes more than compensate for these initial efforts.

Nitrogen fertilizer tends to acidify the soil, which forces producers to apply lime more frequently. On the other hand, once you get the PH, phosphorous and potassium levels where they need to be and you introduce legumes and good grazing management practices, you can obtain good production at low cost.

Another important point to bear in mind: you're building a more sustainable operation. You're ensuring a better distribution of nutrients and a considerably more environmentally friendly operation — not to mention a lower stored feed requirement.

Are these insights something you discovered yourself or the result of a collective effort?

I've been studying forage crops for a long time, and I've seen lots of experimental results that support these statements. I've also learned a lot of this on the job by talking to producers and other livestock researchers and Extension professionals.

All of this has given me more insight.

If you had asked me about these kinds of things the first year I was on the job, I would have said it was a good approach. Now, given the current economic situation, I view all of these insights not only as valuable but also critical to a livestock producer's operation.

So you really believe that introducing these improvements could translate into huge differences for producers?

Yes, but they have to be willing to do it. There are some producers in the business who understand all this strategy but, for whatever reason, aren't willing to adopt it.

We're facing an extremely competitive environment — a survival of the fittest-type environment. It's an environment that favors those producers who know what to do and, equally important, are willing to do it.

If profit is important to them, they're going to have to start thinking about this. That's just the way it is.

We had a series of meetings this year – Better Beef Basics – in which we presented this very scenario: "here are the things you must do because the old paradigm isn't working."

What are some of the other grazing management issues that need to be closely considered with this strategy?

Soil fertility needs to be right: You're not going to get good production, even from grasses, if you don't have decent soil fertility. Equally important is getting soil ph at the level it needs to be.

Likewise, legumes need to be managed in a way that will ensure they persist — a critical issue.

Are there any advantages to growing row crops and livestock on other types of farm operations?

Livestock potentially could fit well on many row-crop farms because they can complement crop production. One of the examples we have cited is to grow a crop, such as corn, the residue of which can then be grazed by livestock after harvest.

If you think about it, this serves as an almost cost-free food source because almost all of the input costs were invested in raising and harvesting the crop. On top of that, though, you're getting a use for what remains. In the case of corn, the animals eat the stalks and, in the process, reduce their need for hay. In addition, we're also closing the loop again: Most of the nutrients consumed by the animals are returned right back to the soil via urine and manure.

This offers some huge advantages to conservation farmers who otherwise would have to use machinery to cut down the residue to begin the next harvest.

You've also emphasized the importance of minimizing losses related to hay storage and feeding. Why is this so critical to producers?

We know that it's common for people to lose some 30 percent of their hay in storage and as much as 20 percent during feeding.

So, if a producer loses 30 percent in storage and 20 percent in feeding, that's half of the hay. To put it another way, if roughly half the hay is being wasted through storage and feeding, then whatever hay the producer needs to have on hand to feed the animals through the winter has to be doubled.

And we're not talking about potential loss. This is real loss. The expense and time harvesting the hay — not to mention, the worry — has already been invested.

So, that old concept of good hay storage is as important a topic now as it has ever been. Lots of producers know they are losing money by not doing a better job of storing and feeding hay. But for many of them, it's difficult to appreciate just how much.