Submitted to: Resource Magazine
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: June 1, 2007
Publication Date: October 1, 2007
Citation: Sanderson, M.A., Corson, M., Rotz, C.A., Soder, K.J. 2007. Economic analysis of forage mixtures for pastures. Project Grass Magazine. P. 4-6. Interpretive Summary: An interpretive summary is not required.
Technical Abstract: Establishment of new pastures from seed can be expensive and producers often prioritize stand life of the pasture over herbage yield. Nonetheless, we have found that some producers in the Northeast plant complex mixtures of grasses and legumes because they believe that maintaining a highly diverse botanical composition in pastures contributes to increased persistence, yield stability, and productivity. In an informal survey of 86 mixed-species pasture plantings on 56 farms, we found that about 30% of the plantings were to four or more forage species. A major disadvantage of forage mixtures is maintaining each species in the pastures. This might require more frequent re-establishment to maintain the mixture. In this research we examined the whole-farm economic returns from several pasture planting scenarios that varied in stand life. Our research shows that planting grass-legume or grass-legume-chicory mixtures increased net returns per cow compared with a nitrogen-fertilized orchardgrass pasture. The increase in net return ranged from $57/cow for the two-species mixture to $191/cow for a six-species mixture with a 3-yr stand life. Corresponding values for a 5-yr stand life were $107 and $225, respectively, and for a 10-yr stand life were $136 and $246, respectively. The greater forage yields of the mixture compared with orchardgrass+N reduced purchased feed inputs and in some instances increased the income from forage sold off the farm. To do the analysis, we used the Integrated Farm System Model to simulate several pasture planting scenarios calibrated to the forage and animal production results from a previous dairy grazing trial. The scenarios included an orchardgrass+N (150 lb/acre) pasture with a 10-year stand life and the two-, three-, six-, and nine-species pastures with a 3, 5, or 10-year stand life. Planting pastures to grass-legume or grass-legume-chicory mixtures increased net returns per cow compared with the orchardgrass+N system. The increase in net return ranged from $57/cow for the two-species mixture to $191/cow for the six-species mixture with a 3-yr stand life. Corresponding values for a 5-yr stand life were $107 and $225, respectively, and for a 10-yr stand life were $136 and $246, respectively. Within the four mixtures, the three-, six-, and nine-species mixtures had greater net returns per cow than the two-species mixture. Our simulation results indicate that all forage mixtures were more economical, on a whole-farm basis, than grass+N pasture. Lower seeding rates would improve the economic advantage of the mixtures compared with orchardgrass+N. Costs could be reduced further by frost-seeding forages instead of no-till planting if the forages successfully establish. Increasing stand life increased net returns from all mixtures but the increase in net return was greatest with the two-species mixture. However, the greater herbage production and resulting greater net returns per cow for the grass-legume-chicory mixtures offset any disadvantage of shorter stand life compared with the orchardgrass+N or orchardgrass+white clover pastures. For example, the net return per cow from the three- and six-species mixtures with a 3-year stand life had equal or greater net returns compared with the orchardgrass+N or orchardgrass+white clover pastures with a 10-year stand life. Thus, producers who place a premium on stand life of pastures without regard to herbage yield may give up potential profits. The principal item affected in our simulation analysis was the net purchased feed and bedding cost per cow. The greater forage yields of the mixture compared with orchardgrass+N reduced purchased feed inputs and in some instances increased the income from forage sold off the farm. The reduction in feed costs with more efficient forage production on pastures and the generally lower feed costs are the principal benefits of pasture-based dairy systems. Production risk (measured as the standard deviation of net returns across years) was up to 24% less for the forage mixtures compared with the orchardgrass+N scenario. This may have been because forage production was more consistent year-to-year with the mixtures and because excess forage harvested as baleage or hay was available to supplement forage shortages during drought years. Production risk for the two-species mixture was higher than for the other mixtures, which accurately reflects the greater fluctuations in actual yields observed among mixtures in dry vs. wet years. Increased stand life reduced production risk as well. Using grass-legume or grass-legume-chicory mixtures for grazing dairy cattle was more economical on a whole-farm basis and less risky than grass+N pastures. The increased forage production from the mixtures reduced purchased feed inputs and sometimes increased income from forage sold off the farm. In all of the pasture scenarios modeled, increasing stand life of the pastures increased economic returns. Even with a shorter stand life, the grass-legume-chicory mixture was more profitable compared with a long-lived and lower yielding orchardgrass+N pasture.