By Aaron Berger, Extension Educator

The relationship between current grain prices and forage/pasture prices in western Nebraska is creating a scenario where forage crops may provide an economically viable alternative to a cash grain crop. From an economic perspective, at current market prices, 1.5 tons per acre of annual forage is competitive with cash grain crops in terms of generating gross dollars per acre.

A wide range of pasture rental rates are being paid for grass for a cow-calf pair month in western Nebraska. In this example, a cow-calf pair is considered to eat on average 40 lb of air-dried forage per day, or 1200 lb per month. The price per pair per month is divided by 1200 lb to get a price per pound for forage grazed and then multiplied by 2000 to get a price per ton equivalent. 

This chart highlights that at $40 per pair per month for pasture, a person could feed forage at $67 per ton consumed by the cow-calf pair and it would be equivalent on a price per ton basis. To accurately compare these two options, feeding costs need to be included and compared to costs for caring for cattle on pasture.

Comparing Gross Dollars per Acre

• 1.5 tons of annual forage @ $65 per ton = $97.50
• 35 bushels of wheat at $3.00/bu = $105
• 30 bushels of proso millet at $5.50/cwt = $90

Forage quality needs to be compared as well. Early in the season, grazed forage in a pasture would likely be of higher quality than hay. However, in late summer and fall, hay quality may be higher than grazed pasture. Evaluating both grazed and harvested feed on a price per unit of energy and protein can help producers know the value of available feed resources.

Table 1. Comparison of pasture rental fees with equivalent forage prices per ton.

Annual forages can be an excellent feed resource. Harvest efficiency of annual forages can be improved over direct grazing by windrowing the forage at its optimum and grazing the windrows in the field.  Producers report that approximately 85-90% of the forage grown can be harvested with cattle when utilizing windrow grazing.

Windrow grazing saves baling and hauling costs and also returns a majority of nutrients back to the field where the crop was grown, reducing fertilizer inputs needs for subsequent crops. See the Nebraska Extension NebGuide Windrow Grazing (G616) for more information.

Research from the 1990s at the university's High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney showed that foxtail millet, sudan, and sorghumxsudan grass hybrids as well as oats, triticale, and wheat can consistently produce 1.5 to 3 tons per acre.