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Improving the production, environmental, and economic efficiency of the stocker cattle industry in the southeastern United States

Beck, P. A., Anders, M., Watkins, B., Gunter, S. A., Hubbell, D., Gadberry, M. S.
Journal of animal science 2013 v.91 no.6 pp. 2456
Cynodon dactylon, Festuca arundinacea, animal performance, annuals, business enterprises, calves, carbon, conventional tillage, costs and returns, forage crops, forage production, grazing, livestock production, no-tillage, ownership, pastures, pollution load, porosity, production economics, production technology, rain, rainfall simulation, runoff, soil aggregates, soil analysis, soil nutrients, soil quality, spring, stocker cattle, surface water, sustainable agriculture, wheat
Grazing forages on small-grain fields can be a profitable "second crop" for grain producers and an opportunity for cow-calf producers to retain ownership of weaned calves. The increasing costs of conventional tillage and movement of soil nutrients into surface water creates a need for more sustainable production practices to be incorporated by producers into wheat pasture production systems. Research at the Livestock and Forestry Research Station near Batesville, AR, and the Southwest Research and Extension Center near Hope, AR, has been conducted over a 9-yr span to characterize the impacts of pasture systems on forage production, animal performance, soil quality, water runoff, and the economics associated with the stocker cattle enterprises. Gains of growing cattle grazing nontoxic endophyte-infected tall fescue and small-grain forages can be increased by 80 and 150%, respectively, compared with grazing Bermuda grass or toxic endophyte-infected tall fescue. Producers grazing spring-calving cowherds can use these improved forages to accelerate stocker performance when retaining calves in the fall and improve net returns by 99% with winter annual or nontoxic tall fescue production systems compared with Bermuda grass or toxic tall fescue. Rainfall simulation of small grain pastures indicates that runoff volume and nutrient load does not differ between conventionally tilled fields and no-till fields in the spring before tillage when soil surface cover is similar. In the fall after tillage, however, conventionally tilled fields had 4 times greater runoff; hence, there was 1.9 times greater N runoff and 3.2 times greater P runoff in conventionally tilled fields compared with no-till. Total natural rainfall runoff from conventionally tilled wheat fields were 2 times greater than from no-till fields with 25 mm rainfall events yet were 4 times greater with 62-mm rainfall events. Soil analysis shows that soil aggregate content was greater in no-till compared with conventional till, indicating greater soil porosity, improved water infiltration rate, and reduced erositivity of soil. Carbon concentration in no-till soils was 50% greater than conventional tillage after 9 yr. These experiments show that production systems can be designed that maintain livestock production, increase soil quality, reduce nutrient discharge, and promote improved economic returns.