Cattle Producers Should Take Note

Cattle on pasture

Young Angus on pasture at a University of Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center. Photo courtesy UTIA.

Because native grasses produce large amounts of forage and strong gains at a low cost, they can be a good tool for all sorts of cattle operations, from stockering and backgrounding programs to those endeavoring to develop their heifers to help grow their herds.

Forage expert Patrick Keyser, a professor with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and director of the UT Center for Native Grasslands Management, explains why.  “Heifer development is a very important
 – and expensive – phase of both beef and dairy cattle production. It is dependent on good quality feed, which makes up the bulk of development costs,” he said. “Achieving adequate gains from weaning until puberty is the key.”

Keyser outlines that depending on weaning weight and birth date of the calf in question, average daily gains (ADG) need to be 1.4 – 1.8 pounds per day. “Keep in mind though, that gain does not have to be consistent throughout the weaning-breeding period,” he says. “So if feed is available that provides low-cost, accelerated gains for a portion of that time, it can make an important contribution to successful development. Likewise, during pregnancy, higher quality feed can supplement forages that produce lower gains.”

Keyser says recent research at UT has documented that bred dairy heifers (9-11 cwt) grazing native grasses had ADG of 1.64 lb on a big bluestem/indiangrass blend (105-day grazing season), 1.54 lb on switchgrass (61-day basis), and that bred beef heifers had ADG of 1.15 lb on eastern gamagrass (112-day grazing season). “Clearly, these gains are acceptable for the development period, except that eastern gamagrass, because of its lower gains, would be more appropriate during pregnancy.” Keyser notes that for these three trials, no nitrogen was applied to any of the pastures, making the cost of gain very minimal.

An economic analysis conducted on one of these studies found the cost of gain was $0.40 per lb for the big bluestem/indiangrass blend and $0.31 per lb for switchgrass. A separate analysis compared the cost (per head per day) of grazing these grasses to rations based on traditional commodity feeds that provided ADG comparable to the native grasses. “The cheapest alternative was $1.96 for corn silage with dry distillers' grains. Corn silage with soybean meal (the most expensive) was $2.94, while the native grasses were considerably cheaper at $0.48 for switchgrass and $0.79 for the bluestem blend,” Keyser said. “The low cost of gain on native grasses resulted from their relatively high carrying capacities and rates of gain combined with limited input costs.”

Keyser adds that native grasses offer other advantages for heifer development. “They are very drought-tolerant perennials and thus, can be reliably available each summer. Also, they do not have any of the negative health or reproductive implications of endophyte-infected tall fescue, which may be most pronounced during summer,” Keyser said.

For more information Keyser recommends the UT Extension publication SP731-C, Grazing Native Warm-season Grasses in the Mid-South. You can find it online at no cost at Simply input the publication number or title into the search engine.

More information about cattle and forage management is also available at your local county UT Extension Office or online at the UT Beef and Forage Center:

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Dr. Patrick Keyser, 865-974-0644,​