CREAL SPRINGS, Ill. — When Teresa Steckler looks at a harvested cornfield, she sees free cattle feed.
“You’re missing a golden opportunity if it’s available and you don’t use it,” said the University of Illinois Extension livestock educator.
Jeff Beasley has quickly become a believer. Beasley, who raises beef in Williamson County in southern Illinois, is a relative newcomer to the practice of turning out cows on corn stalks. He was even able to utilize downed plants.
“It has helped extend our hay and grass,” he said. “We got a lot out of it. We had a lot of downed corn, and it would have been a total loss, but the cows made use of it.”
Running cattle on corn stalks is one strategy livestock producers can use to extend the grazing season. That is especially important this year in some areas of Illinois, where hay supplies have been tight.
Steckler and others discussed pasture strategies recently at Beasley’s farm. She said that keeping hooves on pastures deep into the cold-weather months is nearly always a profitable venture, as long as certain guidelines are followed.
“Depending on how many cattle you have, you can extend your grazing period so you need less hay,” Steckler said.
Getting cattle on corn stalks soon after harvest is one key. In the first 60 days after corn is shelled, the stalks have up to 8 percent protein and are 70 percent total dry matter. Stover can total as much as 4.5 tons per acre of grain.
“That’s pretty darn nutritious, especially for a cow that is not nursing,” she said. “So there’s a lot of forage that can be consumed out there.”
Allen Williams has made it his life’s work to help beef producers increase efficiency utilizing practices such as extending pasture life and rotational grazing. A former livestock specialist at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State University, he now serves in a group called The Pasture Project.
“We must manage and adjust to changing conditions using keen observation,” Williams said while touring Beasley’s farm. “Pastures can be heavily over-grazed. That costs us a lot money.”
He and others at the Pasture Project promote what they call “flex grazing,”
“It can work in practically every type of environment and any type of production system,” said Williams, who raises cattle in Mississippi.
Producers who turn their cows out on corn stalks can avoid pitfalls by following a few tips. Steckler recommends moving the herd around.
“You don’t want to let the cows go out and graze whatever they want to graze, because that’s like turning the kid loose at the dinner table: They’re going to go to the dessert first,” she said. “Your cows are going to get all the corn first, then the leaves and husks, and then the stalks. If you force them into a smaller area with electrified fence, you force them to graze it down.”
One concern is compaction, especially if the corn is on softer ground. Steckler pointed to data from a University of Nebraska study that showed no reduction in harvest the following year with conventionally tilled corn that was grazed in the fall. The study did show a slight drop in no-till soybean yields.
“Does that mean you can’t graze them? No. Just be judicious,” Steckler said. “There’s some data that shows there is benefit to cattle going out there and grazing those stalks.”