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Wesley Tucker gets the most out of forage

At first glance, Wesley Tucker looks like most other beef producers in southern Missouri. He has a job in town and raises a small herd of cow-calf pairs in his spare time.

But Tucker has two secret weapons. One, his wife, Heather, is a veterinarian, which he says is a tremendous benefit to their operation. Two, he has worked as an Extension specialist for 14 years, helping other farmers learn how to become more profitable—and he applies those lessons to his own operation.

“Missouri is a great place to produce beef,” Tucker said. “We can grow forage nearly year-round, which gives us a substantial advantage.”

The Tuckers raise about 85 cow-calf pairs, all Angus, Simmental and Hereford crosses. In addition, Wesley assists his mother, Debbie Tucker, with her 60-cow Red Angus herd on the century farm where he was raised.

The Tuckers choose to purchase the hay they need, instead of growing their own, which allows them to run more cows. Rising feed costs over the last few years have forced them to become more efficient at using forage.

“Forage is still the cheapest energy we can feed the cow, so maximizing its use and extending our grazing season is the best way we’ve found to lower costs and improve profitability,” he said. “But I’m not afraid to supplement my cows when they need it. With today’s higher beef prices, we can’t afford not to take good care of our cows.”

Tucker advises producers with pasture to adopt rotational grazing. This involves adding fencing and water sources that allow you to keep cows moving and pasture healthy. “Rotational grazing provides the greatest opportunity to improve efficiency and get the most out of your land,” he said. He sees more people adopting the practice.

The Tuckers lease most of their pasture, and losing that property constitutes a concern. “A few sudden phone calls and we could be forced out of the cattle business,” he said.

But for most producers that Tucker deals with, the biggest challenge is focusing on profitability. “We all love cows or we wouldn’t be doing this, so often we focus on production,” he said. “I’m as guilty as anyone—my weakness is heifers. We raise a good set of heifers with improved genetics and I can’t bear to see them go. Before I know it we’ve got too many cows for our land.”

In addition, good times in the beef business have prompted producers to buy more equipment and expand their operations—sometimes at the expense of profitability.

When Tucker talks to farmers about risk management, he stresses the second word: Management. “All of us are guilty of doing something because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “We’re so busy doing today’s chores that we don’t look ahead. You have to pay attention and make adjustments when necessary.”

Tucker suggests asking yourself simple questions like:

  • Am I going to have enough forage or do I need to apply additional fertilizer?
  • Are the cows where they need to be or do they require additional supplement?
  • Is it getting dry? If so, do I need to consider early weaning?
  • Do I have extra grass? If so, should I hold my calves longer?
  • Is the market telling me to get rid of them now?

“A well-managed forage system can build flexibility into your operation, providing risk protection as well as allowing you to capture opportunities,” Tucker said.

Further, producers who get the most out of their grass can produce beef at a lower cost. “If your production costs are $200 per cow cheaper than your neighbor’s, when everyone else is at breakeven, you are still making money.”

Tucker sees opportunities ahead as the world demands more beef. Markets signal that it’s time to rebuild the U.S. beef herd after recent droughts reduced numbers.

“Experts disagree about how many additional cows we really need,” he said. “Many producers are saving heifers and paying record high prices for replacement cows, and that may not be sustainable. As we rebuild, beef prices will come down and input costs will continue to rise. Will you be able to repay what you just paid for that cow when we see more normal calf prices?”

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