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Conventional wisdom, not to mention research, says stockers don't perform on Kentucky 31 fescue. The toxins produced by the forage keep young cattle from gaining enough to be profitable. Bob and Butch Foster disagree. The father-and-son team regularly put 200 to 250 pounds on calves in three to four months. And they do it largely on Kentucky 31.
"Grass is the best feed there is," Bob said. "That's what puts weight on cattle." Granted, their pastures also include clover, bluegrass and orchardgrass. They don't supplement with grain at all, except when they use a bucket of it to move the cattle.
The Abingdon, Va., duo's focus on forages starts in the fall with a soil test, done every other year. They apply lime, potash and phosphorus as needed, with a goal of getting soil pH to a 5.5 or a 6.0. A typical application is about 2 tons of lime per acre and 50 to 75 pounds of potassium and phosphate. The local co-op spreads them with a truck. Because they have clover, they don't have to apply nitrogen.
In February, the Fosters broadcast white clover at a rate of 2 pounds per acre over pastures. First, they make sure existing forage is eaten down close to the ground. This gives the clover a chance to compete. If needed, the duo even lets their neighbor graze his cows to remove extra growth.
University of Arkansas beef Extension specialist Paul Beck said clover is a key ingredient in getting satisfactory gains off fescue pastures. "It gives the cattle something else to eat that dilutes out the toxins," he explained.
He said clover does more than provide a dilution effect. In Arkansas trials, when clover was added to toxic fescue pastures, they got a half-pound increase in stocker average daily gains compared to gains on straight toxic fescue pastures. However, Beck said when they interseeded clover in nontoxic fescue, they still got a half-pound advantage over straight nontoxic fescue.
"My feeling is the clover adds diet quality, more protein and energy," he said.
STOCKERS AND SPRING FESCUE
The Fosters work hard to have everything ready for stockers by the end of March. That's when they bring in the cattle, timing the delivery to match spring growth spurts in their pastures. Conservative stocking rates along with their forage-management program let them graze five-and-a-half semi-loads of calves at a time.
On their home farm, which is around 80 acres of open pasture and 40 acres of woods, they graze calves weighing between 650 and 750 pounds at a stocking rate of around two calves per acre. On their rental ground, which is 350 to 400 acres and not as productive, they stock at a lighter rate of one calf to the acre.
While the Fosters don't supplement with grain, they do keep a high-quality mineral out containing either Rumensin or Bovatec. They switch to a mineral containing a feed-through fly-control product when flies start appearing.
Arkansas' Beck said including minerals is another component in good daily gains. He said research shows with stocker cattle grazing wheat pasture, minerals improved average daily gains by 0.25 pounds compared to white salt. Cattle need calcium and phosphorus, and fescue is known to bind up copper and other trace minerals, he explained.
As far as the addition of an ionophore to the minerals, Beck said animals on toxic fescue respond to implants and ionophores in the same way they do on nontoxic fescue.