Sustainable beef cow production in Iowa is becoming increasingly critical as Iowa grows its fed cattle industry and other beef markets while looking for alternative land use on fragile acres prone to soil erosion.

Competition from volatile grain prices and recreational land uses has reduced pasture acres in Iowa 34.5% from 2002 to 2012, while beef cow numbers were reduced only 10%, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Record cattle prices and moderating grain prices may create more opportunities for cow-calf producers who can both apply alternative management systems and adapt to evolving weather and market risks.

As Iowa beef producers strive to raise more cattle on fewer acres, numerous alternative management strategies are being employed. For example, there is growing interest in intensified management systems such as extensive confinement of cows in dry-lots and buildings. In contrast, some producers are striving to minimize high cost inputs of fuel, machinery and purchased feeds as they more intensively manage their grazing systems and attempt to maximize grazing days. While these methods are explored, most Iowa producers continue to manage cows with summer grazing and winter hay feeding.
 
All three methods have advantages and disadvantages, and superior management can make all be successful.

  • Extensive stockpiled grazing requires good grass management and the proper cow genetics to flourish with less feed inputs.
  • Limited grazing will require low-cost rations and attention to cow and calf health.
  • The more traditional grazing and haying program will succeed if feed waste is reduced and grazing days are maximized.

Calf weaning weights and cow reproduction can be very similar with any of these systems.
 
Due to increased interest and a lack of real data to compare these systems, the Iowa Beef Center staff secured funding from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture for a three-year on-farm study evaluating these alternatives. Twenty-four producer cooperators will share their experiences and allow ISU staff and students to collect soil, forage, animal and economic data from their farms. This information will help us develop recommendations for other producers in Iowa. You can keep track of this effort with updates and field day promotion on the iowabeefcenter.org website and through beef industry media.
 
For more information contact Joe Sellers at 641-203-1270 or sellers@iastate.edu.