By Marlee Moore
Stocker calves beeline for lush, protein-packed ryegrass as Steve Tanner opens the gate dividing a pasture in Greenville.
“They’ve eaten that down pretty good,” said Tanner’s wife, Rosa, noting the calves’ previous paddock.
The Tanners build their herd nutrition program from the ground up. It starts with drilling ryegrass in fall, allowing time for it to green up before stockers arrive in January. The 300-pound calves pack on an extra 200 pounds by feasting on ryegrass with its 20+% protein content.
“We wanted straight ryegrass because it has more protein for the smaller calves,” said Tanner, who grazes around 2,500 head of stocker cattle annually on 1,100 acres.
The Tanners use rotational grazing. Alternating pastures requires a higher level of management, labor and infrastructure investment but yields higher-quality forage — and, ideally, higher profits.
While ryegrass is their main source of nutrition, free-choice hay and a complete mineral package rounds out the feed program and counteracts deficiencies. After piling on the pounds, cattle head north to Wisconsin each May for summer grazing before being shipped to feedyards out West.
The mineral block is a critical component of Tanner’s program. He began using it last year at the recommendation of a local nutritionist after calves suffered thiamine deficiencies.
“Using this block solved our problem,” said Tanner, 64, the Butler County Farmers Federation vice president. “It helps with their overall health, too.”
Tanner admits the package is more expensive than straight mineral, but it helps add weight and clears up health issues, like runny eyes. He credits the block for a tenth to a fifth of a pound of daily gain per calf.
“The calves come out looking shinier, slicker and healthier than others,” he said. “I’ve been sold on it.”
The Tanners’ approach is specific to their farm, climate, soil and goals. But their program mirrors Kim Mullenix’s advice for Alabama cattle farmers.
“Nutrition doesn’t come from a bag,” said Mullenix, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Beef Systems agent. “We have to build on the concept of improving the efficiency of our land resources. Then you supplement to overcome inefficiencies.”
The Tanners take recommendations from pros like Mullenix seriously. Take their tetraploid Nelson ryegrass, a variety touted in industry magazines. It consistently outperforms other grazing forage on the Tanners’ farm.
“You don’t want the grass to run out early,” Rosa said. “You learn the varieties that work.”
The cattle rotate pastures every 7-10 days, giving grass time to green and spread between grazing. The grass is a natural dewormer, too. The Tanners also raise bahiagrass hay, in addition to a ryegrass cutting.
“We get a lot of use out of each pasture,” Tanner said. “I could graze this ryegrass two to three more weeks, but by pulling the calves off early, it has time to shoot up high.”
Mullenix recommends prioritizing forage management year-round by testing soil samples and researching high-quality seed varieties before managing a tight ship when planting and grazing.
“Cattle turn forages into high-quality protein,” she said. “We want to optimize managing all resources for nutrition programs.”
For more beef systems resources, visit aces.edu.