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Many farmers outside the fertile Midwest would salivate at the prospect of routinely growing 200-bushel corn on prime farm ground in central Illinois. But not John Hebert. The Owaneco, Ill., producer gets greater economic, environmental and social returns by raising stocker cattle on what used to be strictly corn acres.

"What we've found is that there is still a place in Illinois to raise grass and cattle. It's very sustainable," says Ed Ballard, extension beef specialist, Effingham, Ill. Ballard has been advising Hebert since 1997. "It's a great opportunity for producers to use proper forage management to improve their land quality and it's a chance to increase their returns."

Hebert's love of livestock motivated him about six years ago to try backgrounding commercial calves for later sale to feedlots. Through trial and error, he came up with a way to combine management intensive grazing (MIG) and silage production to profitably feed calves.

He buys and feeds silage to enough 500-pound calves to make up a semi-truck load so he can sell them through video auction once the group of calves reaches 750 pounds to 800 pounds. He also generally buys 350-pound calves for his MIG program, which uses alfalfa and orchardgrass. He has found that raising alfalfa and orchardgrass for four years and then putting the area back into corn production for one year provides the best results. He also periodically changes which area of his farm is used for rotational grazing.

"I put about 15 acres in alfalfa and orchardgrass, which provides ground cover and gives me better returns with cattle than if it was in corn," says Hebert.

In fact, his gross returns have been dramatically higher. In 1999, Hebert grazed more than 60 stocker calves on alfalfa and orchardgrass in 11 paddocks. The calves rotated locations every three days, gaining nearly two pounds per day or 306 pounds per calf for the period.

"Beef produced per acre was 1,174 with the MIG at a cost of about 23 cents per pound of gain," says Ballard. "That includes the land, labor and input charges."

With beef prices near 70 cents per pound, the total value per acre for the gain is about $831.80 minus the purchase price of the cattle and the time invested in selecting and buying stockers. That compares with 200-bushel per acre corn at $2 per bushel with a gross return of $400.

Hebert has also planted small grains, such as rye, after harvest and used it for grazing during the fall and winter. In the spring, the area goes back into row crops.

"In return, the land is covered with a crop all year long, more organic matter goes back into the soil and less wind and water erosion occurs," says Ballard. "University research and soil tests have shown that rotational grazing will improve the soil content, and most farmers begin to see those benefits after the first two years."

"The diversification has been good for our operation, economically and environmentally," says Hebert. "I use fewer purchased inputs, have lower machinery and labor costs and less environmental impact. My children have become more involved in the operation and we enjoy being able to work with the cattle together as a family."

But for all of the sustainable benefits, Ballard warns there are also challenges. "Most farmers who are currently raising corn and soybeans on marginal land would find they can get better economic gains from cattle and improve their soils," he confirms. "The downfall is the time you have to invest to buy and market cattle."

Hebert agrees. "It can be very time consuming."

Animal health is another primary concern. "The health of the cattle is one of the greatest areas where you must put emphasis on your time and financial input," Hebert says. "Cattle on pasture are not much work. It's when you first purchase them and have to treat them that takes up your time.

"I am in this for the long-haul. It is a sustainable solution for my operation," Hebert continues. "Stocker cattle placement can be arranged around other enterprises. You just have to be prepared to do it on a scale that will contribute to your finances and to the environment." AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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