South Florida ranches have a $250 advantage in cow-calf costs

by Allan Nation

FORT PIERCE, Florida:"South Florida has every natural advantage there is for cow-calf production," Florida rancher Bud Adams told me. Adams grazes some 9,000 females on two ranches north of Lake Okeechobee in south central Florida.

J. Willard Lemaster, IRM co-ordinator for the University of Florida, said figures collected under the national Standard Performance Analysis (SPA) confirm Adams' statement. South Florida does have a definite "unfair advantage" in cow-calf production. These figures show that south Florida ranchers have about a $250 cost advantage per weaned calf over Midwestern producers.

This cost advantage exists despite weaned calf percentages 15 to 20 percent below the national average (65 to 70 percent versus 85 percent) and weaning weights 34 pounds under the national average (480 vs 514 pounds). Lemaster said south Florida's primary advantage was its low feed costs due to a long green season and hayless winters. South Florida's biggest problem is its seasonal imbalance in forage flow between winter and summer.

Paul Mislevy, Professor of Forages at the University of Florida's Range Cattle Research and Education Center, said that unlike the temperate South, many of south Florida's warm-season grasses tend to retain some green color in the winter. They just don't grow much if at all. Mislevy suspects some of this growth shortfall is due to daylength.

Apparently, bahia, the predominant grass, is much more daylength sensitive than bermuda or pangola grass. For example, bahia stops growing in October, whereas, some varieties of bermuda will grow until Christmas.

Hemarthia (Limpo grass) is a relatively recent African import to South Florida and has a much more aggressive winter growth pattern than most warm-season grasses. Adapted to wet soils, it is a tall growing plant that holds its digestibility well when stockpiled for up to four months.

Mislevy said recommended management is to rotationally graze the grass several times during the summer being careful to leave at least a ten inch stubble. Grazing is stopped in August or early September and the grass is allowed to stockpile growth until Christmas. It is then grazed off in a rotational manner leaving the necessary eight to ten inches of stubble.

One advantage of this grass is that if a freeze should occur only the top two to three inches are killed and a green center is left. This allows a dry cow to be wintered with no supplementation.

Another advantage of Hemarthia is that the grazing deferral allows the stocking rate to be increased on the other pastures. "We don't need to grow any more forage in the summer. We've normally got too much," he said.

Lemaster said the seasonal forage imbalance is worsened by a tradition of winter calving that is left over from the screw-worm days. "If you study our forage and moisture cycle, we have our breeding season all wrong," Lemaster said. "We should be calving in late summer - not mid- winter." Winter and spring in South Florida are typically dry with the wet season not starting until late June or early July. This means a winter calving cow frequently cannot gain in body condition on the droughty pastures. This spring forage shortage is particularly hard on first calf heifers who are trying to both grow, lactate and rebreed. The rainy season starts in late June or early July and brings an explosion of forage growth and this abundance creates a different problem.


Bahia grass, which is the dominant grass, requires that it be grazed as fast as it grows to maintain quality. "We tend to be grossly understocked in the summer and grossly overstocked in the winter," Lemaster said.

Since a cow's forage consumption doubles when she calves, it is best that she calve at the time of the year when forage is most plentiful. Another advantage of later calving is that this would move the breeding season into the cooler months of the year and allow the use of straight- English breed bulls.

However, this late calving is in conflict with Florida's tradition of selling calves in August and September to beat the fall runs in the rest of the country. What is overlooked is that the February market is traditionally the highest calf market of the year and fits the forage flow of winter pastures in the temperate South (home of many Florida weaned calves) far better than August.

Lemaster said he knows of one ranch that is following this summer calving program and a problem they have had is calving into water-covered pastures.


T. J. (Terry) Cannon of Okeechobee, Florida, believes most ranchers have barely scratched the surface of what is possible in south Florida if they became "management-intensive." Thanks to a very intensive pasture subdivision and a daily paddock shift, he is currently grazing one animal unit per acre year-around with no hay and no supplemental feed on his 170 acre ranch. "I can run a cow for less than $100 a year (everything except land cost). This is a very easy place to raise cattle," he said.

With Pangola and Star as his primary grasses, Cannon fertilizes with 250 lbs of Ammonium nitrate in the winter. He said this winter fertilization helps to balance his summer production. He also applies 500 pounds of lime every year. "I have grazed 1.5 cows per acre with a higher (nitrogen) fertilization rate," he said.

In contrast to the south Florida average, Cannon achieved an 86 percent weaned calf crop percentage last year.

Nearby rancher, Bud Adams, said he is impressed with anything over an 80 percent weaning percentage. He said while it is possible to have a high calving percentage, getting these calves to the weaning pens alive can be a struggle in predator-rich south Florida. Unlike Cannon, Adams does not use nitrogen and prefers to rely on Louisiana S-1 white clover, Aschenomyne and Desmodium. To grow these legumes he fertilizes his pastures with phosphate which is seldom done in Florida. Adams uses a lax form of rotational grazing but with 50,000 acres he admits he has more land than cattle. As a result, a very intensive grazing program doesn't fit where his ranch is right now. "We're still trying to grow into our ranch." he said.

Like Cannon, he does not feed hay and does not supplement his cows at all. "My cows may need it, but I learned long ago you can't make any money with cows buying in feed and making hay," he said.


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