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New Prairie Grasses To Fatten Cattle—and Producer Profits

Beef-cattle gains of up to 50 pounds per head should mean more money in the bank for animal producers in the Central Plains and Midwest, thanks to two new varieties of big bluestem prairie grass that ARS and university scientists have jointly released.

The beef gains come from grazing trials in eastern Nebraska that compared the new releases—Bonanza and Goldmine—to existing cultivars Pawnee and Kaw, which have been the leading big bluestems in the region for more than 40 years. Their long reign stems from their adaptability to a wide range of growing conditions. Such adaptability is especially important on marginal cropland used for cow-calf operations, whereby beef cows draw nutrients from forage rather than grains.

The problem is, Pawnee and Kaw weren’t specifically bred with forage quality in mind, notes Kenneth P. Vogel, who leads ARS’s Wheat, Sorghum, and Forage Research Unit, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Goldmine and Bonanza offer the best of both worlds, combining wide-ranging adaptability with better forage quality, adds Vogel, who began breeding the big bluestems in 1977. He collaborated with ARS Lincoln scientist Robert B. Mitchell and University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Terry J. Klopfenstein and Bruce E. Anderson to field-test the grasses.

In pasture trials from 1999 to 2003 in eastern Nebraska, cattle that grazed the new big bluestems gained 18 to 50 pounds more per acre per year than those that grazed Pawnee and Kaw. The researchers estimate these gains could mean net-profit increases of $15 to more than $35 per acre a year for beef producers. And on marginal cropland, yearling steers that grazed pastures of Goldmine and Bonanza generated more net profit per acre ($65) than would have been made from growing corn on the same land during the same years.

Certified seed will become available in 2006. Vogel hopes the big bluestems will give beef producers a sustainable way to earn more income from marginal cropland.—By Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Kenneth P. Vogel and Robert B. Mitchell are in the USDA-ARS Wheat, Sorghum, and Forage Research Unit, 344 Keim Hall, P.O. Box 830937, Lincoln, NE; phone (402) 472-1564, fax (402) 472-4020.

"New Prairie Grasses To Fatten Cattle—and Producer Profits" was published in the November 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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