Georgia cattle farmers took a big hit during near-record low cattle prices in 1996. Those low prices had farmers looking for any way to stay in business.
Finding ways to cut costs and increase profits isn't easy. But University of Georgia researchers have found a way to increase returns without spending more to do it.
"We're raising about 20 percent more animals on the same amount of land," said Gary Hill, an animal scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
In the summer, farmers move cattle onto grassland to graze. Many plant Bahia grass, which is well-suited to Southern summers. Tifton 9, a popular new variety, is well-known for its swift growth and good nutrition.
Hill's research found that by rotating cattle onto and off small paddocks within a Tifton 9 pasture, farmers can stretch the use of their land while keeping cattle healthy and well-fed.
He divided a 13-acre pasture into nine cells of 1.4 acres each. Then, by moving the cows and calves around the cells in a 2.5-day rotation, he found that 20 percent more animals could graze on the same amount of land.
The grass type is important, he said. Hill planted Tifton 9 on his test plots. This type produces about 50 percent more forage than Pensacola Bahia grass. Shorter grazing times allow Tifton 9 to recover quickly.
After the rotation is complete, the first section has regrown and is ready for the cattle to graze it down again.
As beef grows more popular, farmers must raise more cattle to meet that demand. In 1996, the average American ate 64.3 pounds of beef, up from 61.6 pounds in 1993.
Georgia ranks 19th in the nation in the number of cattle farms, with 29,000 scattered throughout all 159 counties.
During the summer, most Georgia cattle are on grazing, said Ronnie Silcox, a CAES extension animal scientist. "It's just the way to do it in Georgia in the summer," he said.
Farmers graze cattle, he said, for several reasons:
* Grass grows where most crops can't or won't.
* Cows are naturally designed to eat grass.
* It's the most economical feed there is for the type of cattle farms most common in Georgia: keeping brood cows and raising calves.
Georgia farmers rely on their pastures, Silcox said. In fact, many cows graze in pastures nearly year-round. Most calves are on grass until they grow to 600 to 700 pounds. Then farmers ship them to feedlots, where they're fed grain to hasten weight gain before slaughter.
Hill said rotational grazing helps farmers realize about $75 per acre more than continuous grazing on the same land. As farmers can put more cattle on the same amount of land, they can sell more cattle each year.
This method takes a little more of the farmer's time. But it doesn't take much more money. "It does cost a little to set it up," Hill said. "And farmers have to make certain the animals have a good water supply."
Lightweight, electrified fencing keeps cattle where the farmer wants them. When it's time to move them, Hill said, they go willingly. "They can see the taller grass in the next paddock, and they're ready to move into it," he said.