Producers squeeze greater profits from pasture

Farmers can make higher net profits from grass than from canola.

Legal grass, that is.

That statement contradicts evidence presented by the sea of yellow seen across the Prairies in recent years, but comparative figures bear it out.

Arnold Mattson, grassland stewardship co-ordinator for Agriculture Canada, used to believe there was more money in cereals and oilseeds. But when the Alberta Forage Industry Network challenged him to make comparisons, he did.

He found that pastures provided higher net profit than canola, spring wheat or barley, on average, over a 10-year period from 2000 to 2011.

“I wish I would have known this 50 years ago. I would have farmed a lot differently,” said Mattson, who is an adviser to the forage network and used to farm.

He compared returns on the three crops with those from pasture grazing in the black, brown and grey-wooded soil zones of Alberta. Pasture netted an average $96 per acre in the black soil zone, compared to $87.16 for canola, $24.15 for spring wheat and $4.50 for barley.

Results for the other two soil zones showed similar spreads, with pasture coming out on top.

Mattson’s figures didn’t impress Rob Davidson, a stockman who owns and manages 114 acres near Creston, B.C.

That’s because Davidson nets about $200 per acre on his pasture through management and grazing of cattle, sheep, pigs or horses — whatever type of stock he calculates will be most profitable in a given year.

“People just don’t treat grass as a crop,” said Davidson. “The people that grow continuous grazing, we can triple their carrying capacity if they would manage their grass even close to what they do their canola, but they don’t. They treat it as a no-profit thing. And grass is extremely profitable.”

The profit is realized by feeding it through animals, and because ranchers attribute their returns to their animals, they don’t give grass its due.

Mattson said he once surveyed producers in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan about their returns per acre. He was surprised when most people put no value on their pasture land because in most cases it was unsuitable for farming.

“Where that mentality came from, I don’t know,” said Mattson, “but it makes us our own worst enemy.”

He suggested that producers reconsider their view of pasture and grassland.

“If you look at it as though you were a cattleman, your grass and your feed is a cost. But when you look at it as a grass farmer, all of a sudden the grass and the land are a profit centre.”

Albert Kuipers, manager of the Grey Wooded Forage Association based in Rocky Mountain House, Alta., said producers often assume that pastureland is unproductive.

However, farmers’ tendency to put their best land into cultivation means pasture is often on the poorest land.

“It’s amazing, when you put good land into pasture, the productivity that you’re going to get,” said Kuipers.

Davidson said that’s what he does, on land he admits is rich, irrigated and ideally located in a valley with a grazing season that extends from April to December.

That’s how he achieves $200 per acre on grass, but Mattson’s figures show that good profits are achievable in what is considered to be the more common prairie growing season of May to October.

Davidson is a ranch management coach and grazing mentor. He counsels calculation of production costs above almost all else.

“For 25 years I’ve said put your best land into grass because it will make you more money, because you have less expenses.”

Higher grain and oilseed prices in recent years are attractive to farmers, tempting them to cultivate pastures and crop them.

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