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UI economist sees greater profits in pasture than wheat

Some Eastern Idaho growers are moving away from grain in favor of raising irrigated pasture, which is in short supply in the region.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on October 23, 2017 8:24AM

Last changed on October 23, 2017 10:07AM

Some Eastern Idaho growers are moving away from grain on pivots in favor of raising irrigated pasture, which is in short supply in the region.

Courtesy USDA

Some Eastern Idaho growers are moving away from grain on pivots in favor of raising irrigated pasture, which is in short supply in the region.


RIRIE, Idaho — Local farmer and rancher Boyd Foster has confirmed he’s better off financially to convert some pivots from wheat to grass.

Foster explained that good irrigated pasture is in extremely short supply, but there’s a glut of wheat weighing down the market, forcing grain prices well below production costs.

University of Idaho Extension economist Ben Eborn has reached the same conclusion, recently publishing an enterprise budget showing Eastern Idaho producers who raise irrigated pasture rather than wheat should stay in the black.

“Everybody in the cattle business, it’s one of their major concerns — finding pastures,” Foster said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking about some options like this.”

For this season, Foster planted 220 irrigated acres to tall fescue grass. He explained he got the idea from a nearby dairy that has converted almost entirely from alfalfa to fescue, which grows quickly, requiring less potash and phosphate than alfalfa, thrives on dairy lagoon water and can stand up to heavy grazing.

Foster averaged 3 tons per acre of baled forage from his single fescue cutting, and he plans to use the land as pasture for a 250-cow herd this fall and winter. Next season, however, he anticipates taking two cuttings, while also grazing the land in the spring and fall. He’s considering converting two additional pivots to grass next season. Grass inputs are lower than wheat, and there’s no need for tillage. For weed control, he mowed the tops of weeds before they could go to seed, and supplemented with herbicide spraying.

“It’s essential for my operation to have some flexibility for the cows,” Foster said.

McCammon rancher Jim Guthrie has been forced to decrease the size of his herd, unable to find sufficient pasture.

“Pasture is getting more and more elusive,” Guthrie said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they’re looking at those options.”

According to Eborn’s calculations, a grower yielding 6 animal unit months of grass — or roughly 3 tons per acre — on irrigated ground would have to rent his pasture for $29 per AUM to break even on 160 acres. In Eborn’s budget scenario, the rental is $35 per AUM, earning him $5,403 in net returns above operating expenses, not factoring in fixed costs. Eborn said yields were conservative to reflect high-elevation farm land productivity.

“It’s in the black at least,” Eborn said, adding he’s aware of several regional growers replacing grain with grass.

At his ranch in Bancroft, Steve White finished a long process of converting all of his irrigated grain and alfalfa to a blend of grasses this season. He uses the land for summer pasture, believing his calves gain more weight on it, and he notes there’s no risk of weather or hail damage.

“We figure we make more money with grass than we did even when grain was good,” White said.



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