Choosing Between Annual Pastures and Cash Crops

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  Assessing production potential of perennial pastures and comparing that to the number of cattle going to pasture and the expected length of the grazing season is the first step in determining the need for annual pasture.

Of the many crop choices available for use as annual pasture, spring and winter cereals offer the most flexibility, least cost and lowest production risk if supplemental pasture is needed this summer. A combination of winter and spring cereals seeded early in spring offers the longest potential grazing season and most flexibility as pasture or feed. Achieving a highly productive annual pasture means seeding into an existing cultivated field and providing fertility that is appropriate for moisture conditions. The annual pasture must compete with grain and forage crops for use of cultivated lands. A partial budget is a simple and effective tool to help in making that decision.

Partial budget analysis requires that a few pieces of information be assembled. Expected revenues from grain or harvested forage are needed for comparison with the value of the annual pasture that replaces them. Annual pasture revenues are projected by estimating dry matter yield and converting this to the number of grazing days and carrying capacity. Basing the value of grazing on the cost of providing alternate feed or pasture. Include transportation and travel costs when rented pasture is the alternative and yardage costs when drylot feeding is the alternative.

Partial Budget for Comparing Annual Pasture to Harvested Grain or Annual Forage Crop

Added RevenuesAdded Costs
-Predicted value of grazing based on total cost of the alternative (rented) pasture or feeding.-Differences in seed, herbicide, fertilizer.
Reduced CostsReduced Revenues
-Cost to harvest grain or forage.
-Differences in seed, herbicide, fertilizer.
-Expected value of harvested grain or forage.
Total A                                              $Total B                                           $

On the cost side, expect seeding, cultivation and fertilizer costs to be similar for cereal crops whether grown for grain, harvested forage or pasture. Interseeding spring and winter cereals and additional mid-season fertilizer applications would raise costs, but would be offset by additional carrying capacity. Cost savings would mostly relate to harvesting costs but could include changes in cost of seed, herbicide and fertilizer depending on the crop being considered.

If the total of added revenues and reduced costs (Total A) is greater than or equal to the total of added costs and reduced revenues (Total B), then seeding cultivated lands to annual pasture should be an economically sound decision based on expectations for the year.

If the only cost difference between crop and pasture is in harvest costs, then the value of grazing must be at least equal to expected crop revenue less harvest costs. For example, if expected crop revenue is $150 per acre, harvest costs are $25 per acre, and grazing is priced at $25 per animal unit month (AUM), then at least 5 AUMs per acre are needed for the pasture to compete economically with the alternate crop. Given that the annual pasture may not provide a 5-month grazing season due to growing season limitations, it may need to be stocked at more than one animal unit per acre for the period of time it is grazed.

Expected Crop Revenue .
Less:    Harvest Cost (grain or forage)      .
Equals: Minimum Value of Grazing .
Price of grazing (Cost of alternate grazing/feeding)
. .
Minimum number of AUMs/acre . .

Arvid Aasen, Pasture & Forage Agronomist
Lorne Erickson, Beef/Forage Specialist
Western Forage/Beef Group / AAFRD, Lacombe

Other Documents in the Series

  Calculating Grazing and Forage Needs
Spring Grazing Decisions Affect Farm Bank Accounts
Range and Pasture Litter: How Much is Enough?
Moisture Management on Perennial Pastures - Risk Management
Winter Cereals for Grazing
Choosing Between Annual Pastures and Cash Crops - Current Document
Early Weaning Stretches Forage Supply and Reduces Winter Feed Needs for Beef Cattle
Fall Body Condition Management in Beef Cattle
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Karin Lindquist.
This document is maintained by Marie Glover.
This information published to the web on June 7, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on November 24, 2017.