NC_old1181: Enhancing resiliency of beef production under shifting forage resources

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

NC_old1181: Enhancing resiliency of beef production under shifting forage resources

Duration: 10/01/2014 to 09/30/2019

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

Forage-based livestock production is a vital component of the agricultural economies of states in the North Central Region (NCR). This region accounts for 33% of the nation's beef cow herd. The states of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota alone have 7.5 million head of beef cows, which comprise over 25% of the nation's beef cows; adding the remaining states in the NCR brings that number to over 10 million. This region finishes over 50% of cattle marketed for meat (NASS, 2013). Forages account for 80% of the feed resources consumed by beef cattle and, therefore, represents an extremely important resource to the industry (Bula et al., 1981).

Production of ethanol from corn, oil and oilseed co-products from soybeans, increased worldwide demand for wheat, and high crude oil prices have caused a shift in land use in the NCR. As recently as 1997, perennial forages occupied approximately 106 million acres, or 31% of land classified as farmland in the NCR (NASS, 1997). During the time period of 1997-2013, the acres planted to corn and soybeans in the states of ND, SD, NE and KS increased from 33.6 million to 42.2 million (NASS, 2013), an increase of 25.6%. Much of the increase in land use for corn and soybeans has resulted from the conversion of acres producing perennial forages. Recently, Wright and Wimberly (2013) estimated that 1.3 million acres of rangeland in the western cornbelt region of ND, SD, NE, MN and IA have been converted to corn and soybeans during the time period of 2006 to 2011 (Figure 1 in Appendix A).

In addition to perennial native grasslands and grazinglands with introduced species broken out for grain production, other perennial grasslands with potential for grazing are also being converted to row crop production. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands seeded to perennial native and introduced grasses have been used for conservation and wildlife habitat for almost 30 years; however, recent commodity prices have enticed producers to either remove acres from CRP or to place CRP acres back into row crop production once contracts expired. Reports from the USDA (USDA 2009, 2013) showed that 12.8 million acres of CRP in 14 north central states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming) were set to expire between 2007 and 2012. Out of those 12.8 million acres, only 3.2 million acres were immediately reenrolled, meaning 9.6 million of those acres exited the CRP program when their contracts expired and were eligible for conversion back to row crop production. Some of these acres in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota are surely included in the land conversion highlighted by Wright and Wimberly (2013), and the same process is likely occurring in neighboring states. Therefore, summer grasslands with excellent potential to support the north central US cattle herd are shrinking, while croplands with grazable crop residues are increasing. This land conversion process then indicates that greater production or greater harvest efficiency is required of perennial grazinglands in this region to support or enhance the size of the regions cattle herd during the growing season.

Concomitant with the decrease in acres of perennial forages is a decrease in the size of the US beef cow herd. Using the same time period of 2006-2011 as investigated by Wright and Wimberly (2013), the US cow herd declined from 33,253,000 head to 30,864,000 head, a loss of 2,389,000 head (NASS 2006, 2011). During the same period, beef cows in the 12 states of the NCR declined from 11,148,000 to 10,024,000, a loss of 1,124,000 head (NASS 2006, 2011). Therefore, 47% of the beef cows lost in the US during the period of 2006 to 2011 were lost in the NCR. We hypothesize that the reduction in cows in the NCR is directly related to the loss of forage resources in the NCR due to land conversion to row crops such as corn and soybeans. Since 2011, the US cow herd has further been reduced to 29,295,300 (NASS, 2013; Figure 2, Appendix A). The rapid decline during the last two years can be partially attributed to severe drought in the central and southern plains. Any attempt to increase the number of cows in the US will depend on the availability of forage resources.

A major limitation to rebuilding the cow herd in the NCR is increased prices of livestock feeds and forages from hay and pasture. These increases in commodity prices for grain crops have pushed agricultural land values and rental prices to all-time highs. For example, from 2006 to 2013 the price indices for feed grains and hay prices have increased over 200%, whereas the price index for meat animals has increased 41% (NASS, 2013). During this same period, rental rates per animal unit month have increased 24% in the states of ND, SD, NE and KS (NASS, 2013).

In order to maintain or increase the size of the US beef cow herd, improving the use of forage resources in a sustainable manner is essential. We propose to 1) investigate strategies to optimize the sustainable use of the remaining range and pastureland, and 2) expand the use of alternative forages such as crop residues and annual forage crops.

The loss of range and pastureland to cropland will increase the production pressure on the remaining land mass now producing perennial forages. These lands must be managed to efficiently capture the available forage resource, but in a sustainable manner so that long-term degradation does not occur. Harvest efficiency will increase linearly as grazing pressure is increased on pastures; however, individual animal performance will generally decrease with increased grazing pressure (Smart et al., 2010). To maintain animal production, strategies need to be explored to either increase available forage on grazinglands or to mitigate depressed animal gains as grazinglands receive greater grazing pressure. Greater forage production may potentially be attainable on the same land area by methods to shift species composition toward more productive species (Smart and Owens, 2008). Alternatively, strategies that alter the timing and density of animal stocking may enable an increase in animal production without increasing land area used (Owensby et al., 2008; Harmoney and Jaeger, 2011). Furthermore, use of supplements (Griffin et al., 2012; Stalker et al., 2012) and crop residues (Warner et al., 2011) may mitigate any expected decline in individual performance or may enable the capture of greater production other than during the main growing season.

Capturing the expanding forage resources that are available with increased cropping systems is critical to the future of the US beef industry, especially in the NCR. As crop yields increase, so does the non-grain biomass (residues) because the proportion of grain to plant (harvest index) for corn is generally 0.50 or less (DeLougherty and Crookston, 1979), meaning there is at least as much residue produced as grain. However, removal of the residue biomass, whether by grazing or harvest, must be optimized so that land productivity is not compromised long term. It has previously been demonstrated that removal of residue decreases subsequent crop yield (Wilhelm et al., 1986). However, grain yields and residue biomass production have increased dramatically over the past three decades. More recent research demonstrates that removal of residue positively impacts subsequent yields (McGee et al., 2013b), but the response of residue removal on subsequent crop yields differs in irrigated and non-irrigated fields (Weinhold et al., 2013). Therefore, different crop residue management practices may be required depending on environmental and management conditions. Additionally, the use of cover crops is known to improve soil characteristics while producing high quality forage. However, little is known about the impacts of partial biomass removal from cover crops in an integrated cropping-livestock system. Finally, as grain prices change with time, some producers may find it beneficial to integrate annual forages for livestock production into their production system to maximize profit.

Our project addresses priority research objectives established under the guidelines for Multi-State Research Projects of the North Central Regional Association under two broad areas: 1) agriculture production, processing and distribution, and 2) natural resources and the environment. This project will specifically meet the regional objectives to 1) design economically and environmentally sound methods to convert biomass and secondary products into food and nonfood uses, 2) develop alternative agricultural production systems to enhance economic competitiveness in the rural landscape, and 3) develop guidelines for optimal economic, social and environmental management of non-cropped farm and natural ecosystems and for restoration of damaged ecosystems.

This research is critical to the long-term viability of the beef industry because it strives to expand the forage base for beef production both by efficiently utilizing existing grazinglands and by capturing forage resources currently underutilized in crop residues and annual forages such as cover crops. If this research were not conducted, the number of beef cows in the NCR may continue to decline because of limited forage availability. Beef producers would be forced to pay more for forage resources, thereby experience greater expenses, and less profit, until they could no longer compete. Ultimately, forage availability will play a major role in determining the economic impact of the beef industry in rural communities.

This project will be conducted at research stations throughout the Great Plains. Participants have access to experimental pastures, livestock handling and feeding facilities, and laboratories at their respective institutions. The 5-year project will allow for adequate time for an initial investigation into the interaction of biomass removal from cropping systems for livestock production. In addition, researchers at the participating institutions have a history of successful collaborative research through previous committees. The advantages of a multi-state effort include synergistic relationships among multi-disciplinary colleagues at the different institutions, ability to evaluate biomass removal over wide north-to-south and east-to-west climatic gradients, and the ability to disseminate research findings to a broad regional audience. Several project faculty members have cooperative extension appointments and will assist with the dissemination of research findings. The conversion of range and pasturelands to cropland is widespread in these states, and the potential to incorporate beef production into crop production systems is high in each state. The opportunity to expand beef production is great in the states of the NCR because of the biomass resulting from expanding cropping systems. Furthermore, perennial grass forages still encompass a major portion of the NCR; the land area potentially affected by effective management of rangeland and the number of producers benefitted is extensive. Collaborative extension efforts will aid in reaching this broad audience.

The likely impacts from successfully completing perennial grassland work include 1) development of management strategies to increase animal production on fewer grassland acres, 2) knowledge of grazing and management strategies to shift pastures to more productive species, 3) implementation of animal management systems that match timing of forage supplies, and 4) retention of the NCR beef cattle herd on fewer grazed perennial grass acres. Likely impacts from successfully completing crop residue research will include 1) development of guidelines for utilizing low quality crop residues in conjunction with feeding of co-products, 2) implementation of annual forages to increase the forage base and enhance use of crop residues, 3) determination of the sustainable level of use of crop residue for animal and crop production, 4) widespread adoption of feeding co-products and utilizing crop residues by producers, and 5) improved profitability of producers throughout the Great Plains. The economic impact of beef production has been estimated from $1850 to $5200 per cow, depending on whether or not the economic impact of the feeder and finishing sector is separated from the cow/calf sector. If the cow herd were expanded from 29 million head to 33 million head as a result of improved utilization for forage resources through the strategies proposed herein, the economic impact would be estimated at $7.4 billion for the cow-calf sector, and over $20 billion for the beef industry as a whole. Much of the potential to expand the cow herd exists in the NRC because of the potential use of traditional and non-traditional forages in the region.

Related, Current and Previous Work

This project was preceded by the multistate project NC1181entitled Sustaining Forage-based Beef Cattle Production in a Bioenergy Environment. The objectives of this project were to: 1) identify factors in the sub-humid and semi-arid regions of the central Great Plains that limit establishment, persistence, and production of interseeded legumes in grass pastures; 2) Compare forage and animal production of grass pastures in the sub-humid and semi-arid regions of the central Great Plains that are managed with different levels of nitrogen fertilization, legumes, and biofuel co-products; 3) Determine the influence of different mixtures of biofuel co-products and low quality forage (e.g. wheat straw) on nutrient availability, palatability, and utilization by beef cattle; 4) Determine optimum practices for storing and feeding different forms and mixtures of biofuel co-products; 5) Evaluate nutrient availability and cycling, botanical composition, and forage production and quality of range and pasture when feeding biofuel co-products to grazing cattle; 6) Determine the economic potential of using biofuel co-products as a supplement or forage replacement in cattle production systems with different resources or animal management systems; and 7) Conduct multifaceted education/extension programs to disseminate research results, to include extension papers as well as regional conferences on the use of co-products in beef cattle production systems and on the practice of interseeding and managing legumes in grass pastures. The group concluded that interseeding legumes into grass pastures increased total vegetative production and animal production per acre. However, establishment and persistence of legumes remains a problem. No soil fertility or pesticide management practices appeared to be key limiting factors of legume establishment and persistence in cool-season grass pasture. When equivalent amounts of nitrogen are provided to pastures as inorganic fertilizer or as supplement from bioenergy co-products, forage production is similar. However, animal performance is improved when a co-product is fed. Bioenergy co-products can be stored and fed with low quality forages. Mixing the co-product improves the intake of the low quality forage. Supplementing grass pastures with co-products improves animal performance per acre without negatively impacting the vegetative ecosystem. Five pounds of distillers grains supplement reduces forage intake by 17% in grass pastures. The group generated 28 refereed journal articles, 36 abstracts, 3 conference proceedings, and 67 extension publications through four years of the five-year project.

The group identified forage resources as a primary limitation to beef production in the next decade. Strategies were developed to take advantage of available forage resources now and in the future. Objectives were developed to investigate the proposed strategies. Increasing forage resources exist in crop residues due to increased acres and yields. More efficient use of traditional grasslands without damaging botanical ecosystems needs to be explored to provide recommendations to producers before overgrazing occurs. Use of cover crops was identified as an additional forage resource that could benefit both agronomic systems and beef cattle production. Since cow inventory has declined from 45 million cows to under 30 million in the last 35 years, it may be possible to increase cow numbers by capitalizing on excess feedlot capacity by developing an intensive cow management system. All this work must be disseminated to producers in order for the committee to influence the future trajectory of beef production in the US.

Several regional committees work in the general area of forage use and beef cattle. One regional committee (W1012) deals with forage use by ruminants, but the focus of this committee is validating research techniques (alkane assays) and models (NRC model) in beef production. Another multistate project (W1010) deals with feed efficiency of individual animals. A third committee (NCERA 218) focuses on beef cow/calf nutrition and management and deals with forage use, but does not deal with crop residues, or cover crops. Finally, NC1182 deals with nitrogen cycling, loading, and use. No projects are focused on alternative forages proposed in this project.

Some research has investigated the impacts of grazing corn residue on animal performance. Wilson et al. (2004) summarized several years of data generated in Nebraska that includes diet quality dynamics and performance of young, growing calves. Large differences in the nutritional quality of different portions of the corn plant exist. Leaves and husks are of much better quality than stems and cobs (Fernandez-Rivera and Klopfenstein, 1989). For this reason, previous exposure to corn residue dramatically improves animal performance when grazing corn residue. While the nutritional value of corn residue as a feed resource for young, naive cattle has been determined (Klopfenstein et al., 1987), less work has been done measuring the value as a resource for mature beef cows. Rolfe et al. (2012) demonstrated unsupplemented beef cows grazing corn residue performed similarly to cows grazing winter range fed 0.9 kg of supplement per day. Gutierrez-Ornelas and Klopfenstein (1991) investigated the need for supplemental nutrients when calves graze corn residue and demonstrated a benefit for supplemental protein to achieve desirable average daily gain.

Studies have investigated the impact of residue removal by grazing and/or baling on subsequent crop productivity. McGee et al. (2013a) removed residue by grazing at two stocking rates and by baling and reported no difference in subsequent corn yield after 4 years of imposing treatments in a continuous corn production setting. In a separate study, McGee et al. (2013b) reported positive effects on subsequent yield when corn residue was grazed either in the fall/winter or spring in corn/soybean rotation or continuous corn systems. Similarly, research in Iowa has demonstrated no effect on subsequent yield when corn residue is grazed in corn/soybean rotations (Busby et al., 2004). Wienhold et al. (2013) reported removing 40% of the residue from irrigated sites substantially increased corn yield. Likewise, research in Missouri demonstrated increased yield when a portion of the residue was removed (Heggenstaller, 2011).

Cover crops have been planted between regular grain crop production for the purpose of protecting and improving the soil (Mannering et al., 2007). These cover crops include grasses, legumes, and small grains, which may have an added potential of being utilized as a forage source for cattle. According to a recent survey, over 300,000 acres are planted to a cover crop within the United States (SARE, 2013). Current management practices are that cover crops be terminated prior to planting of the cash crop. Cover crops are terminated by several different methods and research demonstrates that the importance of timing and method of cover crop termination can impact subsequent crop production (Daniel et al., 1999; Mirsky et al., 2009; Parr et al., 2011; Wortman, 2012). Costs associated with planting and termination of cover crops can potentially be higher than the income that might be generated from the subsequent cash crop, so finding ways to increase revenue for this management practice is an interesting avenue to pursue. Cattle can offer a chance to re-coop costs associated with cover crop planting. As summarized by Maughan (2009), benefits associated with integration of crops and livestock systems include: 1) reduced risk of raising a single product, 2) increased water infiltration and resistance to soil erosion, 3) building of soil organic carbon, and 4) use of less synthetic fertilizers because of within-farm nutrient cycling from cattle manure. Allen and others (2007) also stated that benefits of integrated crop-livestock systems Encourage sustainable farming and generate positive interactions between crops and livestock with environmental and economic benefits. From a technical perspective, those cover crops that were planted and then grazed are now officially called forage crops, and through the remainder of this proposal will be addressed as such.

Studies evaluating single species forage crops have been completed where cattle and cropping systems have been integrated (Franzluebbers and Stuedemann, 2006; Franzluebbers et al., 2008; Tracy and Zhang, 2008). These studies demonstrated benefits from a cattle performance standpoint with minimal impacts on crop ground. Additionally, net return over variable costs was increased when cattle grazing was included in the cropping system (Franzluebbers and Stuedemann, 2006). There has been minimal research on multi-species forage crops being grazed by cattle, in which cattle performance was reported.

When evaluating the effectiveness of incorporating forage crops into perennial pasture, researchers from Lithuania were successful at introducing barley into perennial clover/grass mixtures (Zableckiene and Butkute, 2005). However, in this study they used grazing cattle to help determine establishment, yet cattle performance was not reported. This leaves a gap in knowledge about whether this is an economical management decision to incorporate into production. As summarized in the NC1181: Sustaining Forage-based Beef Cattle Production in a Bioenergy Environment, interseeding legumes in grass pastures can reduce annual nitrogen fertilizer requirements, improve forage nutritive value of cool-season grass pastures, and increase animal performance. However, there are several forages outside of legumes that need to be evaluated as potential to use in improving perennial pasture as an additional protein source or to extend the grazing season. Even though forage crops have been planted for centuries, efficient management practices must be developed and adapted to new uses and to changing production and environmental systems. Understanding methods to successfully integrate crops and livestock will enable sustainable agriculture.

Some stocking systems have allowed an overall increase in animal numbers on a fixed land area. Stocker cattle on eastern Kansas Flint Hills rangelands have historically had greater gains in May and June than during other periods of the growing season because of greater quality of available spring forage (Launchbaugh and Owensby 1978). Thus, intensive-early stocking (IES) is now a common practice that stocks young animals at greater densities for the first half of the growing season and then removes the animals for the last half of the growing season, effectively increasing animal numbers and utilizing early season vegetation at its highest level of nutrition (Owensby et al. 2008). However, steers in another IES system on the northern Great Plains have had lower early season gains than steers in a continuous season-long stocked system in two out of three years (Grings et al. 2002). Pounds of beef produced on a land area basis is consistently greater for pastures using intensive early double-stocking (2X IES), or pastures stocked at twice the season-long density during the first half of the season than continuous season-long stocked (SLS) pastures, on eastern Kansas and Oklahoma tallgrass rangelands (Smith and Owensby 1978; McCollum et al. 1990). On shortgrass rangeland in western Kansas, individual animal gain during the early growing season, and total beef production on a land area basis, is similar between animals stocked at 2X IES and animals stocked at a normal SLS density (Olson et al. 1993). A study in eastern Kansas used 2X + 1 stocking (IES plus late season grazing) in a three year rotation with SLS and 2X IES (Owensby et al. 2008). In that study, a 16% annual increase in stocking rate from the rotation resulted in 30% greater animal production on a land area basis without any negative impact on the pasture system vegetation. A study in western Kansas also stocked at a 1.6X + 1 rate for seven years, and a 23% increase in stocking rate early in the season increased beef production by 25% (Harmoney and Jaeger 2011). This study reported no differences in pasture productivity or major vegetative components compared to traditional SLS over this time period. Breeding cattle have generally not been used in IES systems. Most all IES studies utilize young stocker cattle, and a literature search revealed no use of breeding cattle in IES systems. The retention of calves at side through the entire growing season has made the use of IES in breeding cattle programs difficult to employ. The use of early weaning and a modified intensive early stocking system may allow an increase in cow numbers early in the season, and a reduction in stocking rate late in the season, because calves are removed earlier in the growing season and thus open and cull cows can be removed earlier in the season. One CRIS project from South Dakota which utilized an IES system to reduce cool-season grass invasion in warm-season grass pastures did mention an animal breeding component, but that project was terminated in 2011 with the closure of a research facility only two years after the project was started.


  1. Optimize the utilization of crop residues by grazing and harvesting, and determine the effects on agroecosystems.
  2. Evaluate strategies to increase efficient use and productivity of range and pasturelands through strategic timing and density of stocking and shifting species composition to more productive species.
  3. Evaluate effects of integrating annual forage crops into year-round forage systems for beef production.
  4. Develop innovative beef systems that match shifting forage resources.
  5. Conduct multi-faceted education/extension program to disseminate research results, to include extension papers as well as regional conferences on the use of crop residues, annual forages, and range and pastureland by livestock.


Objective 1. Subsequent crop yield and soil characteristics as affected by removal of residue will be compared to the effects of not removing residue in replicated studies in the climate and rainfall differences across the states of NE, KS, and SD. Experimental fields will be identified and different proportions of residue will be removed by grazing (one or more stocking rates), or mechanical removal such as baling. Treatments will be replicated at each site across locations to improve statistical power. Animal performance, estimated feed intake, and feed costs will be recorded. Performance measurements will include body weight average daily gain, and/or body condition score (Wagner et al., 1988) measured at calving, pre-breeding, and weaning, pregnancy rate, calf body weight at birth and weaning, and weaning rate. Diet quality (proportion of cob, leaf, husk and stem removed) and residue removal rate (McGee et al., 2013a) will be measured at sites where cattle graze residue. Proportion of residue that has been removed will be estimated. Subsequent crop yield will be measured by yield monitor, weighing, or hand harvesting. Changes in soil water content, temperature, compaction, and erodibility properties will be monitored at select sites. Runoff, sediment, sediment associated-C, N, and P will be measured with rainfall simulation. Soil carbon dynamics will be assessed initially by measuring C and N concentrations of bulk soil, particulate organic matter, and aggregates in the first two years. In the long term (> 2 years), at least one location will measure carbon isotopes (´13C), soil C fractions, and aggregate-associated C to study soil C dynamics. The analysis of the ´13C will permit the separation of residue-derived soil C from the relic soil C of the previous crop (Clapp et al., 2000). The specific procedures will follow those of Clapp et al. (2000) and (Kochsiek and Knops, 2012). Also, in the long term, changes in soil biological or microbial community structure and processes will studied in conjunction with soil physical and biochemical measurements. Soil gas samples for CO2, CH4, and N2O analyses will be collected from select sites on a monthly basis using the static gas chamber method and LICOR-system. The CO2 concentrations will be measured with the LICOR-system, and CH4 and N2O fluxes with the gas chromatograph. Soil water content and temperature will be measured at the time of soil gas sampling. Objective 2. Experiments will be conducted in KS, NE, and SD (1) to compare modified intensive-early stocking of rangeland with breeding or growing cattle vs. continuous stocking of breeding or growing cattle; (2) to determine the effects of stocking density and grazing duration on grazing land productivity, use efficiency, and health; and (3) to determine the effects of interseeding annuals on grazing land productivity and nutritive value. Modified intensive-early stocking entails stocking at a greater density early in the season, then removing a portion, but not all, of the animals during the late grazing season. These experiments will attempt to see if numbers of cattle can be increased on rangelands without negative effects on rangeland vegetative production or population dynamics. Cattle will be stocked at 1.6X the typical stocking density for the first half of the grazing season, and half way through the grazing season, bred females will be checked for pregnancy. Those heifers bred by artificial insemination or early pasture bred will remain on pasture through the end of the grazing season up to a 1X stocking density. Heifers that are late pasture bred or fail to conceive will be transported to the feedlot, marketed immediately as bred female replacements, or placed on full feed for eventual harvest. Animals in the continuous stocking system will remain on pasture throughout the growing season at a long-term 1X stocking density and stocking rate. All heifers will be bred and be measured for conception at the same time periods. Animal weights and body condition scores will be measured at the onset of grazing, at breeding, and at the time of pasture removal. Pastures will be monitored for plant composition and biomass along established transects in each pasture. A similar modified intensive-early stocking experiment will be conducted with multiparous cows with calves at side and stocked at 1.45X the typical stocking density for the first half of the grazing season. Half way through the season calves will be removed, thus reducing stocking density and stocking rate for the last portion of the grazing season. Calves will be placed in a feedlot with a background ration. Steers will then be placed on full feed for finishing analysis, while heifers will remain on a background ration or be maintained on a grazed roughage diet and developed for replacement breeding stock. Calves will be weighed prior to placement on pasture, at weaning, and at regular intervals in the feedlot, while cows will be weighed and evaluated for body condition score prior to placement on pasture, at breeding, weaning, and removal from pasture. Cows and calves from a traditional season-long stocking system will be weighed and evaluated at the same time as the modified intensive-early stocking system. Pastures will be monitored for plant composition and biomass along established transects in each pasture. Effects of stocking density and grazing duration on grazingland productivity, use efficiency, and health will be evaluated on Sandhills upland range and subirrigated meadow and exotic, cool-season grass pasture. Seven grazing system treatments will be evaluated on upland range. These treatments will have a wide range in the level of management intensity, stocking rates, stocking density, number of days grazed per season, and period of grazing within a season. On meadow and cool-season grass pastures, we will compare mob grazing with a single grazing season occupation to simple rotational stocking systems, conventional haying, and a non-defoliated control in terms of (1) herbage production, (2) botanical composition, (3) animal weight gain, and (4) soil carbon. Our experiments are planned for a minimum of 5 years to test treatments under a variety of climatic conditions and because plant community, soil carbon, and nutrient changes may occur slowly as they respond to cumulative effects. In an effort to improve pasture productivity in light of diminishing forage resources, we will evaluate benefits of no-till interseeding of annual warm-season grasses into perennial cool-season grass pastures (smooth bromegrass and tall fescue) and annual cool-season grasses into warm-season grass pastures (native rangeland and bermudagrass). Annual warm-season grasses may include sudangrass, forage sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, crabgrass, and pearl millet. Planting date will be in late spring to fully use the cool-season grass before interseeding. Winter annual grasses may include rye, triticale, wheat, and annual ryegrass. These will be seeded in late summer following intensive grazing of warm-season grass pastures. We also will evaluate seeding annual brassica and legume species in cool- and warm-season pastures, as well as turnips and spring seeded cereals like oats for fall use compared to winter types for spring use. To assess effectiveness of interseeding and carryover effects on pastures, we will measure seedling emergence, botanical composition, forage mass and nutritive value. Ancillary soil and canopy data that may influence success (e.g., precipitation, soil moisture, soil temperature, photosynthetic active radiation (PAR), and leaf area index) will be collected. Forage mass, nutritive value (NDF, ADF, and IVDMD), and cattle gains in these experiments will be measured on monthly intervals. Objective 3. The purpose of this objective is to determine best management practices that will benefit both cattle producers and crop farmers. Research will focus on grazing strategies, optimal forage species composition, effects of haying as a termination strategy, and seeding strategies. For all experiments, measurements will include cattle performance, subsequent crop production responses, and forage usage. In some instances, soil measurements will be collected to evaluate the impacts on soil C and organic matter. The data will lead to recommendations on the appropriate amount of cover to leave on the field. Comparative studies will evaluate different stocking rates for maximum cattle performance and/or production with minimal impacts on crop production. In addition to stocking rates, grazing strategies will be evaluated. Projects will evaluate continuous grazing versus rotational grazing for different periods of time. Mob grazing will also be evaluated. Species composition trials comparing a monoculture forage crop or a cocktail (multispecies mix) will be conducted. We also will conduct comparative studies evaluating planting single species of forage crops (i.e., wheat and rye) versus cocktail combinations that include the base crop and different numbers of other plant species (i.e., rye + 3 other species). The removal of forage by haying as a strategy of cover crop termination prior to cash crop planting will be evaluated. Additionally, the use of the resulting hay as a feedstuff for cattle will be investigated. Forage crops will be harvested at different heights in order to determine the appropriate amount of plant residue to leave on field. Forage will be dried and baled as hay. Nutrient and digestibility analyses will be conducted on the hay samples. Feeding strategies will be developed for different classes of cattle (cows, cow/calf pairs, yearlings) and hay digestibility quantified. Measures will also include subsequent yields of grain crops planted after forage crops. Finally, seeding strategies will be tested to determine if common forage crops can be interseeded/broadcasted into perennial pastures for improved grazing. Efforts will focus on determining which species can be effectively established into perennial pastures and by what methods. Establishment and persistence with grazing will be evaluated. Objective 4. Beef cow production systems that utilize excess feedlot capacity combined with crop residues will be evaluated. Cow/calf pairs will be maintained either in total confinement or in partial confinement with the pairs in confinement for part of the year and grazing crop residues for the other part of the year. Cow and calf performance, reproductive performance, and economics will be assessed in the two systems. Additionally, this research will be conducted with two cow herds, in different climatic regions to determine the impacts of weather, climate, and resources on system profitability. During the confinement phase cows will be limit fed an energy dense diet of crop residues and by-products to reduce the cost of the diet. Although dry matter intake will be limited, the objective will be to maintain body condition on the cows. Cow and calf performance will be evaluated and compared to a total confinement and conventional cow/calf system that includes pasture and crop residue grazing. In addition, an economic analysis will be conducted to compare these cow/calf production systems. Objective 5. Data will be shared and discussed at annual meetings and during periodic communications via email or teleconferences. Journal articles from participating multistate researchers will be published in nationally recognized peer-reviewed journals. Extension publications will be produced within and among states to facilitate outreach efforts. We plan to disseminate information through regional conferences to share research findings with extension educators, natural resource agency personnel, and producers. This regional effort will bring together local and regional expertise to participate in discovering and disseminating solutions to the research questions. Each researcher is appointed to the project by objective in Appendix E. Several faculty members have joint research and cooperative extension appointments. Outreach activities are discussed at the annual meetings and coordinated via email discussions. Results of our research will be the topic of technical sessions at regional and local conferences (e.g., the Nebraska Grazing Conference), field days (e.g., the annual open house at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory), and tours (e.g., the Nebraska Grazing Land Coalition Annual Tour).

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Refereed publications in the Journal of Animal Science, Professional Animal Scientist, Crop Science, Forage and Grazinglands, Rangeland Ecology and Management, and Agronomy Journal.
  • Outreach publications targeted to crop and nutrition consultants and forage/livestock producers on approaches to optimize integrative management practices.
  • Regional conferences, workshops, and field days.
  • Research summaries in university progress reports, in producer field day proceedings, and in web-based project summaries.
  • Presentations at field days and producer meetings, and at the annual international meetings of the American Society of Animal Science, Crop Science Society of America, and Society for Range Management.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Development of sustainable production and management systems that are profitable for livestock producers and protect the environment.
  • Increased use of forage resources from utilization of crop residues, intensive-early stocking on pasture, and use of annual forages.
  • Development of economical systems that maintain cow herds with efficient forage utilization.
  • Expansion of the US beef cow herd.


(2015): -Establish residue removal sites, quantify baseline soil quality properties. Continue data collection at on-going sites (Objective 1). -Baseline data collection for vegetative population and production values for pastures used in each study (Objective 2). -Continuation of on-going experiment evaluating influence of grazing strategies on grazing land productivity, harvest efficiency, and health (Objective 2). -Establishment of experiments evaluating benefits of interseeding annuals into perennial cool-season and warm-season pastures (Objective 2). -Establish fields to evaluate the use of forage crops in conjunction with grazing and/or haying; quantify baseline soil quality properties (Objective 3). -Continue confined beef cow project at existing locations, develop new confinement cow sites (Objective 4).

(2016): -Continue residue removal data collection including animal performance and subsequent yield (Objective 1). -Establishment of experiments that compare modified intensive-early stocking of rangeland with breeding cattle vs. continuous stocking of breeding cattle (Objective 2). -Continuation of experiments evaluating modified intensive-early stocking vs. continuous stocking of breeding cattle and influence of grazing strategies on grazing land productivity, harvest efficiency, and health (Objective 2). -Repeat of experiments evaluating interseeding annuals into cool-season and warm-season grass pastures to evaluate how weather variability influences results (Objective 2). -Evaluate forage yield, forage quality, animal performance, and subsequent crop yield from forage crop use (Objective 3). -Evaluate calf health, reproductive performance, cow body condition score, and calf performance from confined cow sites (Objective 4). -Begin disseminating information via Extension efforts (Objective 5).

(2017): -Continue residue removal data collection including animal performance and subsequent yield (Objective 1). -Continuation of experiments evaluating modified intensive-early stocking vs. continuous stocking of breeding cattle and influence of grazing strategies on grazing land productivity, harvest efficiency, and health (Objective 2). -Evaluate forage yield, forage quality, animal performance, and subsequent crop yield from cover crop use (Objective 3). -Evaluate calf health, reproductive performance, cow body condition score, and calf performance from confined cow sites (Objective 4). -Report findings in university progress reports, at producer field days, and in web-based project summaries (Objective 5). -Prepare manuscripts for refereed journals (Objective 5).

(2018): -Quantify changes in soil quality and physical properties; continue residue removal data collection including animal performance and subsequent yield (Objective 1). -Completion of experiments evaluating modified intensive-early stocking vs. continuous stocking of breeding cattle and influence of grazing strategies on grazing land productivity, harvest efficiency, and health (Objective 2). -Analyze animal production data and vegetative population and production data (Objective 2). -Completion of forage crop experiments; quantify changes in soil quality and physical characteristics; summarize impacts on forage quantity, forage quality, animal performance, subsequent yield, and soil characteristics (Objective 3). -Summarize observations from confined cow production system relative to more traditional systems. (Objective 4). -Report findings in university progress reports, at producer field days, and in web-based project summaries (Objective 5). -Prepare manuscripts for refereed journals (Objective 5).

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Develop educational materials and programs to improve decision-making for grazing based beef production systems by (a) creating new extension publications and revising existing publications on crop residue management for grazing livestock, renovating pastures with interseeded annual forages, including cover crops as forages, and use of different stocking strategies to improve pasture productivity or utilization efficiency, (b) hosting field days and setting up demonstration plots to teach producers the most productive interseeded crops and annual cover crops used as forage in their cropping system and grass-based grazing program, (c) hosting field days and workshops regarding crop residue management, stocking strategies, and seeding annual forages to balance and integrate livestock and cropping systems, and (d) giving technical sessions at regional and local conferences and workshops. Cost effectiveness and sustainability will be emphasized in all extension efforts.


The project will be governed by two officers: a chair and a secretary. Project participants will initially elect the two officers who will serve the first year. For each succeeding year, the secretary will become the chair for the following year and a new secretary will be elected. Terms for each will start at the end of the annual meeting. The chair and secretary will be responsible for conducting necessary business in close coordination with the administrative advisor. The duties of the secretary will be to take meeting minutes, prepare the approved minutes and the annual report, and other duties as assigned by the chair. The chair will conduct the annual meeting and with the help of the secretary coordinate any other reports or proposals as required. The chair will appoint subcommittees for each project objective. Subcommittees will be responsible for drafting uniform research procedures for each objective, subject to approval by project members and preparation of materials and meetings for technology transfer.

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