Summer is here and in the beef business that means grass time. Grazing lands are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in Iowa. Last fall the Iowa Beef Center released a publication documenting pastureland changes from 2007 to 2012. This was the result of statewide pasture rent surveys that were conducted concurrently with the USDA Census of Agriculture. Taken together some interesting facts develop.

First, Iowa lost 21% of its pasture base over this five-year period. At the same time the Iowa beef cow herd was reduced by only 2%. This reduction in beef cow numbers contrasts with a national beef cow herd contraction of 13% over the same time period. This means there's even less available pastureland for Iowa’s beef cow herd. This publication can be downloaded from the Iowa State University Extension Store (https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Iowa-Pastureland-Changes-2007-2012). Virtually all of the reduction in pasture acres came at the expense of cropland pasture.

However, the economic environment in agriculture that was the force behind this change has changed since that time. Depending on the land productivity and price assumptions, there may be incentive today to reestablish forages and grazing on some of the land converted to row crops. Dr. William Edwards of ISU developed a decision tool to look at this question on a farm-by-farm basis. This tool,  the “Crop and Livestock Land Use Analyzer, “is available on the Ag Decision Maker website (https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/c1-15.html).

Two other competing uses of Iowa grasslands are recreation and government contracts. A report on results from a survey on these issues that was funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is included in the 2015 ISU Animal Industry Research Report (ASL R2984). The survey was sent to CRP owners and landowners with grasslands not currently grazed for recreational purposes. Of the grassland owners surveyed, 63% said they wanted to attract wildlife for hunting and 87% would allow short duration grazing to enhance wildlife habitat. The majority of owners of land in a government contract said they would want compensation for payment reductions. Nonetheless, the potential for shared use that is mutually beneficial for beef production and enhanced wildlife habitat is encouraging.

For individual beef producers, these issues require better use of available pastureland, supplementation or intensification, and all of these are current topics of discussion in the beef industry. There are opportunities available in the month of June for producers to learn about more efficient grazing methods. The “Grassroots Grazing” series in south central Iowa is a three-part series held at Osceola on June 22, Knoxville on June 25, and Anita on June 30. An eastern Iowa series begins June 8 at Blairstown with additional locations still being scheduled. These are for beginning and young cattle producers who want to improve their grazing practices. Also look for Greenhorn Grazing programs in Delaware, Dubuque and Clayton counties.

Some producers may be looking at more intensive cow-calf systems as a way to maintain cow numbers with decreased pasture availability. Confined cow systems research is ongoing on at several universities to see whether it is a feasible way to utilize excess feedlot capacity. Beef cow systems in Iowa can range from year-round grazing to year-round confinement. Beginning this spring, the Iowa Beef Center team will work with 24 producer cooperators across Iowa on a three-year study to evaluate production factors and inputs with the goal of determining what makes each system successful and profitable. The final objective is the development of a beef cow systems manual for producers contemplating different systems. We will keep you posted on the progress of this project.

IBC at Iowa State University serves as the university’s extension program to cattle producers. Our center comprises a team of faculty and staff from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Veterinary Medicine and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. We work together to develop and deliver the latest in research-based information to improve the profitability and vitality of Iowa’s beef industry. You can call us at 515-294-BEEF, or e-mail us atbeefcenter@iastate.edu. If you would like to be notified of updates on progress of research projects or programs that might be coming to your area, please subscribe to our “Growing Beef” newsletter by following the link on our web site. You can also follow @iowabeefcenter on twitter.