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By Jeremiah Vardiman, UW Extension Educator

As an agriculture Extension educator, one of my main duties is answering various questions that are asked by the clientele. An intriguing question that was received this fall was, “What is the stocking density for cattle grazing on sugarbeet tops?”

This question highlights the ritual task of removing crop residues from the field. Crop residue is the portion of a harvested crop that remains in the field after the marketable portion of that crop is removed. The most economical means of removing crop residue from the field is through grazing.

Unfortunately, there is no stocking density for grazing sugarbeet tops in the research literature. Furthermore, grazing sugarbeet tops is barely mentioned in the latest research because the advancements in defoliating technology have limited the usefulness of this crop residue, and a majority of farmers have moved away from this practice.

Sugarbeet tops can be grazed by either sheep or cattle, with sheep making the best use.

Colorado State University established that sugarbeet tops are comparable to corn and sorghum residues as a supplemental feed source, with all three having a digestible dry matter content of 52 percent.

In terms of crude protein, sugarbeet tops provide the best source of protein, with 12.7 percent, followed by sorghum residue at six percent and cornstalk residue with 4.2 percent. The highest forage quality available for all crop residues is found immediately after harvesting and diminishes the longer it remains in the field.

The diminishing value of the feed is contrary to the needs of the livestock during November and December, especially mid-gestation livestock. Crop residues are typically inadequate for providing much weight gain to young livestock and insufficient for mid-gestation livestock since their needs increase the closer they get to their last trimester.

To assure livestock receive the necessary nutritional requirements, it is highly recommended that alfalfa hay be provided in their ration. When grazing crop residue in the field, this can be accomplished through feeding hay bales or allowing access to adjacent alfalfa fields. Even though sugarbeet tops are relatively high in crude protein, they should not be the sole roughage source in the diet. Providing free-choice hay provides more roughage in the diet while balancing nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. One concern for grazing beet tops is the potential for livestock to choke on small beets that remain in the field after harvest.

For further discussion on this topic or others please contact your local Extension office.


By Jay Norton, UW Extension Soil Specialist

Driving around and talking to producers in the Big Horn Basin this fall, I noticed an increasing trend toward replanting barley for fall and winter grazing. Some producers are also lengthening rotations and including two to three years of alfalfa for seed or forage.

Sugarbeet-barley rotations are notoriously destructive to soil health because of intensive tillage, long periods of bare soil and the every-other-year frequency of heavily consumptive sugarbeets. Several research papers have shown that the less often sugarbeets are grown, the healthier the soil. One of the latest reports is from our on-farm study in the Powell area, in which both soil health and sugarbeet yield improved in the order sugarbeet-barley, sugarbeet-bean-barley, sugarbeet-barley-alfalfa-alfalfa (Hurisso et al., 2015).

Farmers are realizing that the early harvest of barley creates a window of opportunity. Barley can be replanted right behind the combine to grow a tall, green forage crop before freeze up. Some farmers irrigate and fertilize to maximize forage production. Others include a mix of other cover crop species to benefit both the soil and the livestock.

The system works especially well with sprinkler irrigation because of reduced requirements for tillage, leveling and bedding, but if those operations can wait until spring, it should benefit furrow systems as well.

We’re catching up with farmers to evaluate the benefits, but barley is known to be a great cover crop. It grows very rapidly, competes voraciously with weeds, is very salt tolerant and has prolific fine roots that improve soil tilth and organic matter content. Barley can produce more biomass in a shorter time than any other cereal crop. It can form a deep, fine root system that improves soil structure and scavenges valuable nutrients. Grown together with a legume like field pea, barley can stimulate more nitrogen fixation and capture it in easily-decomposed biomass. A USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) on-line publication provides an excellent description of barley and many other cover crops. Visit for more information.

Several research studies have shown that grazing does not reduce soil health benefits of cover crops. To the contrary, a recent study in the southeastern U.S. found that grazing sped turnover rates of cover crop biomass, increasing biologically active carbon and soil microbial biomass without affecting the amount of potentially available nitrogen (Franzluebbers and Stuedemann, 2015). The benefits were greater under reduced tillage, which is another growing trend under sprinkler irrigated systems in Wyoming. We’re making plans to study interactions among cover crops, tillage and grazing in this part of the country, but we expect similar beneficial outcomes.

If grazing is not part of the picture, replanting barley could still be worth the effort, especially if other cover crops like nitrogen fixers and deep-rooted radishes are included. Planting just-harvested barley seed is a very cheap way to get a cover crop in the ground, and following the combine with the planter maximizes the time for growth before frost. Simply allowing volunteer barley to thrive and provide cover during winter could result in better soil health and productivity. The cover crops capture and cycle residual soil nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to reduce losses from leaching, runoff or volatilization.

Overall, replanting barley after barley looks to be an excellent way to save soil, cycle nutrients and integrate livestock grazing into sugarbeet production systems. The benefits might be even greater if legumes and other cover crops are mixed with the barley seed. Expanding rotations to include perennial crops like alfalfa also has clear benefits for soil health and productivity.

The articles referenced above are cited as follows:

Franzluebbers and Stuedemann, 2015, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 70(6):365-373.

Hurisso et al., 2015, Soil Science Society of America Journal: doi:10.2136/sssaj2015.02.0073.

Contact Norton for copies of literature referred to in this article. Norton can be reached at 307-766-5082 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


By Dallas Mount, UW Livestock Extension Educator

What a year 2015 markets have been! If you contracted calves on the video last year, I hope you didn’t abandon a ship and cash market strategy this fall. If you cash marketed in 2014, I bet you didn’t switch to video for 2015. Maybe you were lucky enough to hit the highs in both 2014 and 2015, but I’d be careful about congratulating yourself too much.

I often wonder, if we paired up a market forecaster and the magic eight ball, how much advantage would the forecaster have over the eight ball? My guess is not much.

I custom grazed some high quality Red Angus cattle these past two summers. In 2014 the calves sold for around $1,600 per head. In 2015 that number was about $1,150 per head – quite a swing in one year’s time.

In the Ranch Practicum School, we use an example ranch built to represent a typical Wyoming cow/calf operation that runs about 300 cows, develops heifers and puts up hay. In July the ranch was projected to make an $86,000 economic profit after salary to owner/operators. When the class came back together in October, we updated our projections, and the ranch is now losing $19,000. That is a swing of about $100,000 in 90 days.

Risk management

These market swings should challenge us as ranch managers to re-examine our risk management strategy and be sure our actions match our desires. I don’t need to tell you that there are lots of forms of risk in the ranching business. For this conversation let’s focus on market risk.

Some of you have ranches operating on a large owned-asset base that use very little leverage and maybe even have cash reserves to operate though down years. Others are operating on leased land or making land payments, must also cover an operating note and/or a cow note and have few liquid reserves to cover living expenses.

Operation-specific risk management

The risk management strategy of these two operations needs to be very different. The strange thing I’ve observed is that often the strategy doesn’t match the need.

For example, the second operation often will not use any market price protection strategies and just take their chances on the market on whatever day they sell. The $100,000 swing experienced by the example ranch I mentioned may be the difference between still being in business next year.

This ranch needs to take some actions to protect it from market swings. These actions may include some of the more typical price-protection strategies like forward contracting, put options, Livestock Risk Protection (LRP) or others.

Maybe there are some non-typical strategies, such as market diversification or others, that would work as well. This ranch will likely have to give up some income potential to protect against the downside. In other words the profit-maximizing strategy is often not the same as the more risk adverse strategy that a ranch like this should implement.

Other alternatives

If you happen to fall into the camp of the first ranch that can withstand a few down years and continue operating, I don’t think you get a free pass on considering your risk management strategy.

This needs to be a discussion for the ownership level of the ranch that gets clear intentions and expectations from ownership. Perhaps ownership understands that a strategy to maximize profit will also increase risk exposure and increases the likelihood of years with lots of red ink. Maybe ownership would be willing to give up some profit if the likelihood of loss years was reduced. Either way you need to discuss this and be clear.

Protecting profits

I’m a big fan of setting profit targets and implementing a strategy that protects a minimum profit and leaves the upside open.

For example, what if you projected your 2016 calf production costs to be $900 per calf weaned? When markets offer us the opportunity to put a floor price on our calves that covers our economic costs, then we may commit to doing 50 percent of the steer calves as soon as possible and the remaining 50 percent of the steer calves 60 days prior to market. We might leave the heifer calves to follow the cash market.

I’m not recommending this is the right strategy for you. I’m recommending you develop your own strategy. Development of your strategy would be even better if it were discussed and in place prior to the season. Then the emotion and our own self-deception is taken out of the decision making.

Understanding price protection tools can be a daunting task, but it can also be worth the work. It sure would have been in 2015. Please contact me or any other Extension educator if we can help.

Dallas Mount can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.


Bridger Feuz, UW Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist

Over the last month there has been quite a bit of information coming out regarding the impacts of heavy carcass weights on the cattle market. Dr. Derrell Peel of Oklahoma State University has really led the charge on understanding these impacts. This reminded me of a project I worked on about five years ago looking at carcass size trends and potential future implications.

Dr. Peel noted earlier this month that there was a large supply of extremely heavy fed cattle, and this was one of the factors contributing to falling calf prices. He also noted that there were anecdotal reports of fed cattle in the Midwest with live weights up to 1,900 pounds. Estimated cattle carcass weights were at 843 pounds, up 25 pounds over the same week the year prior. The extra carcass weight is equivalent to adding over 17,500 head to the weekly slaughter total at last year’s carcass weights. This fact can’t be ignored as the industry is currently in a herd-rebuilding phase.

Over the last month many of these extremely heavy weight cattle have been marketed, and we have subsequently seen a rebound in calf prices. If we continue to work through the heavy cattle this could set us up for a nice price rebound in November and December of this year.

About five years ago I asked three students, Wyatt Feuz, Jemini Leckie and Caitlyn Jackson, to analyze steer carcass weights. Their charge was to look at steer carcass weights from 1960-2010 and fit an equation to the data. They were then asked to use their equation to predict carcass weights out to the year 2050.

The result of the project was that, based on the equation that best fit the data, steer carcass weights would be 1,035 pounds by 2050. I wrote an article on this subject back in 2011 and shared it with many producers during presentations that year. The reaction to my article and the presentations were generally uniform in that producers were not convinced they would ever see steer carcass weights at 1,035 pounds.

So what has happened since 2010? Well, if the anecdotal reports coming out of the Midwest earlier this month are true and steers were marketed with live weights up to 1,900 pounds, we are already there. A 1,900-pound live weight steer would have a carcass weight at or above 1,035 pounds. I understand this is not an average weight and we were under some unique circumstances, but I thought I would take a look back at the original project predictions and compare that to actual averages over the last five years.

The table above depicts changes in the last five years. The solid line represents the predictive equation based on 1960-2010 carcass weights. The second set of data is the actual average steer carcass weights for 2011-15.

The important take home message is that in each of the last five years, the actual steer carcass weights have been greater than the predicted carcass weights. Does this mean that the students were right and we will see average steer carcass weights of 1,035 pounds by 2050? Not necessarily, but it does tell us that we are still on track for that result. The 2015 average steer carcass weight through September was 883 pounds.

As the industry begins to rebuild the cowherd, it will be important for producers to keep an eye on beef production. Certainly we will not be able to return to historically high cowherd numbers with any level of profit. We continue to produce more pounds of beef per cow each year and are constricted by that fact when it comes to overall cow numbers.

Only time will tell what the per cow production capabilities will be in 2050, but so far we continue to be extremely proficient at producing more beef per cow each year.