Organic farmers need to optimize forages

By Gary Sliworsky,
Ag rep, Emo

Like all beef farmers, those who produce for the organic market have to manage their operations to have as low a cost of production as possible.
With the stringent restrictions on what technologies and products are permitted in a certified organic system, organic producers have to focus on exploiting the opportunities which are available to them.
Optimizing forages in the feeding program is one of those opportunities. Tom Hamilton, beef program lead (production systems) for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, explains how:
Maximizing the contribution which forages make to both organic cow-calf production and organic cattle finishing is a key to lowering costs.
Forages can be divided into two separate categories: pasture, where animals are eating fresh or stockpiled dormant plants which have not been machined harvested, and preserved forage such as silage or baled hay, which may be fed in confinement or on pasture land.
In conventional cattle production, the cost of feeding cattle on pasture is less than half of what it is when feeding stored feeds. On pasture, cattle are self-propelled forage harvesters who also spread manure as it is produced.
Harvesting and storing forage in bales or by chopping costs money for fuel, supplies, operator time, and wear on machinery. More costs are incurred when the tractor is started for feeding, pen cleaning, and manure spreading.
For both conventional and organic producers, it makes sense to maximize the use of pasture in beef production.
Nitrogen usually is the most limiting nutrient in forage production. Since organic farmers are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers such as urea and ammonium nitrate, they must use other means to supply forage crops with nitrogen.
Beef producers effectively can utilize manure on grass-based pastures and hay fields. Adding a legume species to forage stands is an excellent way of supplying nitrogen, through the legume’s ability to take nitrogen from the air and “fix” into a usable form.
Pastures with 50 percent or greater legume content do not usually require nitrogen fertilizer.
If cattle are to be fed organically-produced grains and oilseed meals in a feedlot situation, then the costs of these commodities have to be considered. The prices for both conventional and organic grains and oilseeds are volatile, changing yearly and seasonally depending on weather, size of last year’s crop, and current demand.
Reducing the need for these commodities in beef production minimizes the risk of input prices increasing beyond profitable levels.
Since organic grains and oilseeds may command significant premiums, their price volatility is even greater than that for conventional commodities.
Well-managed pastures and high-quality forages can support good gains on both growing and finishing beef cattle. A trial conducted on a commercial farm on Prince Edward Island showed that pastured yearlings can achieve acceptable rates of gain (2.0 pounds/day) during the finishing phase.
In this study, while barley-fed feedlot cattle gained weight more quickly (2.4 pounds/day), they had a much higher cost of gain ($0.57/pound) than pasture cattle ($0.29/pound).
The pasture finished cattle were more profitable, showing a net return of $68 per head, while the feedlot cattle just broke even.
Pasture-finished cattle may exhibit a yellowish fat colour on the carcass. This can cause them to be penalized if they undergo official grading.
In this study, however, yellow fat was not present, and the authors referred to other experiments where pasture finishing did not cause yellow fat. It appears that the occurrence of yellow fat on forage or pasture finished cattle is sporadic.
For producers with a direct to consumer market, where official grading is not utilized, this is unlikely to be an important concern.
Maximizing the use of forages in organic beef production makes sense from both production and economic standpoints. Green, high-quality pasture and stored forages can be an important part of an organic beef production system.
Green is good for organic beef!

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