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Home > Master Publication List> Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet

Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet


Ron Morrow
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published 1998
IP129


Abstract

Cattle in a pasture.
Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS.

This checksheet is designed to stimulate critical thinking in planning a farm on which a primary land use is production of beef cattle. The sustainability of a farm relates to many factors revolving around farm management, use of resources and quality of life. The series of questions is intended to stimulate awareness rather than serve as a rating of management practices. Carefully think about how decisions made in one area impact the results in other areas of your farm. Use this guide to define areas in your farm management which might be enhanced as well as to identify areas of strength.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Note to the educator: Suggestions on how to use the check sheet

The checksheet is quite lengthy and can be rather intimidating, to both educator and producer. Having evaluated the use of the checksheet on several farms, the authors make the following suggestions for its use:

  • Send the checksheet to the producer prior to the first meeting. Allow 2-3 weeks for the producer to work through it.

  • Be flexible. The producer and the educator should be comfortable in working through the process. Remember that the checksheet is a guide to assess the operation as to strengths and weaknesses.

  • Review the questions beforehand. Then, when going through them with the producer, don't just read the questions but address them in your own words. If a question has been addressed in general conversation, or if a question doesn't need to be answered because of the way a previous question was answered, move on to the next question. If the producer doesn't have a problem in a certain area, then the subset of questions pertaining to that problem need not be addressed. Having aerial photos, soil maps and topographic maps on hand during the assessment has proven useful.

  • Since the time needed to completely work through the checksheet may be longer than available for a single farm visit, two or more visits may be in order. The checksheet is most useful in making the producer aware of management alternatives. Therefore, defining the items for which he or she needs more information is most important.

  • Support materials can be procured from ATTRA to use as references.
This document was developed by Ron Morrow (PhD) and Ann Wells (DVM), technical specialists with NCAT/ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas). The project was funded by a Southern SARE-PDP grant. Contributors to the process were ATTRA technical specialists Alice Beetz, Anne Fanatico, Lance Gegner and Preston Sullivan; cattle producers Lisa Cone Reeves and John Spain; representatives of USDA-NRCS Travis James, Sheri Herron and Claire Whiteside; University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension agents Merle Gross, Robert Seay and Larry Sandage; and University of Arkansas Experiment Station faculty Ken Coffey (Animal Science) and Chuck West (Agronomy).

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INVENTORY OF FARM RESOURCES AND MANAGEMENT

INSTRUCTIONS: Complete the following questions to present an overview of the farm and management priorities.

Size of farm (owned)________________________________________________
Acreage rented ____________________________________________________

Number of:

  • Mature cows_______________
  • Replacement heifers_______________
  • Stockers_______________

Other types of animal and farm enterprises
________________________________________________________________
________________________________________________________________

Breeds of cattle
________________________________________________________________

Number of pastures on farm__________
Number of ponds and water sources ________________

Livestock market and months you market in
________________________________________________________________

Months you calve in
________________________________________________________________

How many acres of the following do you have?
predominantly cool season perennial grasses_______________________________
predominantly warm season perennial grasses______________________________
mixture of warm and cool season grasses_________________________________
pastures with legumes________________________________________________
cool season annuals_______________ warm season annuals__________________
pastures that can be stockpiled for late fall/winter grazing______________________

Which practices are part of your grazing system? short duration, slow rotation, continuous grazing

Give major soil types and productivity indexes for the farm
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

When and with what do you fertilize?_____________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

What are the top five strengths of your operation?
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

What are the top five problems?
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

Do you have written goals for your operation (briefly list if you do)? _________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

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INSTRUCTIONS: In the margin for each question, place a checkmark if it needs further thought. Leaving the item blank indicates that the area covered in that question is not a problem or an issue in the management program. Keep in mind that some questions are repeated to show interrelationships.

I. CATTLE AND FORAGE PROGRAM

A. Herd health and reproductive management

Well-nourished, stress-free animals are the foundation of a sustainable beef cattle program. This means animals are healthy and perform better, are easier to manage and care for, and can more easily handle adverse conditions. While seemingly a simple question, this is intended to stimulate quick evaluation of any stress the animals may have. Simply walk into your herd and take a look at your animals.

____

What is the overall appearance of your whole cattle herd?
_______________________________________________________

____

Do your cattle appear to be thrifty, contented, and performing to your satisfaction?___________

A good health and reproductive management program will allow a producer to avoid problems. Most reproductive management problems involve poor nutrition during some period of the year. A well-defined breeding/calving season helps a producer manage a cow herd more effectively. Nutrition of a cowherd revolves around a well-designed forage management program including coordination of calving with forage availability and quality. The forage management plan, by ensuring an adequate supply of high quality forage throughout the year, will reduce the incidence of health and reproductive problems in the herd. If fed properly, cows will cycle and breed early in the season, preventing problems with open (non-pregnant) cows or late-calving cows. Some people presently feel it is best to calve cows when pasture is actively growing; we would advocate that when cows reach peak lactation (30-60 days postcalving), they are on pastures when forage is in peak growth.

What are your herd health goals?________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________

_____ Do you
  pregnancy-check cows?_____________
  fertility-test bulls?________________
  have a defined breeding/calving season?_______________
  calve the majority of your cows the first 21 days of calving season?____________
  routinely condition score cows?___________
  have a clean area for calving?_____________
  feed and water in clean areas?_____________
  have handling facilities which minimize stress to livestock and handler?__________
  use handling techniques that minimize stress?____________________
_____
What vaccinations do you give?______________________________________
_____
When, how often and on what basis do you deworm?____________
____________________________________________________

Do you have problems with (if you have problems in any area, answer indented questions; if not, go on to next one)

_____ open cows (more than 10%) or late calving cows?_____________________
  what condition scores are your cows going into the winter?_______________
  at calving?________________beginning of breeding season?_____________
_____ calving difficulty (pull more than 10% of the calves)?____________________
  do you use easy-calving bulls for first-calf heifers?___________
  are cows and heifers in good condition but not too fat at calving?___________
_____ abortions/embryonic losses?______________________________________
  from where does water flow into your farm?__________________________
__________________________________________________________
  where do cattle access water?___________________________________
  have you submitted fetuses or tissue samples to a lab? __________________
  do you vaccinate for infectious diseases that cause abortions in your area?_______
_____ calf scours and/or pneumonia?_______________
  are cows receiving adequate nutrition prior to calving?___________________
  do you have clean, dry areas for cows after calving?____________________
  are your cows heavy milkers?_____________________________________
_____ internal/external parasites?_____________________
  do you know if you have any or do you just treat as if you do?____________
  do cattle look unthrifty?_________________________________________
  do you attribute a lot of unthrifty problems to fescue?___________________
  do you rotate cattle to clean pastures or continuously graze? _____________
  do you increase feed for cattle in weather extremes?___________________
  have you brought cattle in from arid or western range land?______________
  do you have a problem with flies?_________________________________
_____ grass tetany?_________________
  what are the magnesium, calcium, and potassium levels in the forage where
problems occur?______________________________________________
  what are the potassium and phosphorus levels in the soil where problems
occur?_______________________________________________________
  do you have legumes in problem pastures?____________________________
  do you supplement with magnesium in late winter?______________________
_____ other health problems?___________________________________________

(skip this section if you do not have fescue pastures)
The endophyte level in tall fescue pastures is a management concern. Because seed which is stored for a time period before being sown reduces the infection rate, farms can have pastures with various levels of infection. While most producers make the assumption that pastures are infected, sampling each pasture to determine its specific level of infection could be worthwhile. If a pasture is less than 50-60% infected, its management might be different than if 80-90% infected. Put simply, the best way to manage high endophyte pastures is to use minimal nitrogen fertilization, include legumes, control-graze and cull animals with obvious heat stress problems. Do not mistake other stresses such as parasites, poor nutrition, or extremely hot and humid weather as indicators of fescue problems.

_____
Do you have problems with fescue toxicoses (or heat stress)?_____________
  are you sure it is due to fescue?___________________________________
  have you tested your pastures for endophyte infection?__________________
  are you aware of when fescue is most toxic to cattle?___________________
  could the signs be caused by poor nutrition or parasites?________________
  do you graze or mow endophyte pastures to control seedhead
development? _______________________
  do you minimize nitrogen fertilization of infected pastures?________________
  do you have legumes in infected pastures? ___________________________
  do you encourage diversity of species with good grazing management?______
  do you cull animals and their offspring which show extreme heat stress?______

Stress can be additive, in that one stressor alone may not be a problem, but when multiple stresses occur animals perform poorly or get sick. For example, parasites may not be a problem in well-nourished animals but cause problems when animals are under nutritional stress. Stress to animals can be decreased by careful design of handling facilities, proper consideration of animal behavior, adequate nutrition and awareness that drastic changes in diet (for example, weaning a calf in drylot with hay and grain) can stress animals. Behavior of animals can cause stress to both handler and animal.

_____
Are animals stressed
  _____ when worked?____________________
  _____  during weather extremes?_________________
  _____ at weaning time?_________________
  _____ do you have wind breaks in winter?___________
  _____ do you use handling techniques that minimize stress?______________
  _____ do you use low-stress weaning techniques?_____________________
  _____ is forage availability high enough to meet animals' needs to prevent sickness at high stress times? ________________________________
  _____ what are the condition (body fat) scores of animals which show stress?_____________
  _____ is there good quality and adequate quantity of water during hot weather?____________
B. Breeding, genetics and selection program

Breed selection should be based on the actual merits of a particular breed for a specific marketing program or forage utilization program. Producers tend to base breed or sire selection on popularity of breed or pedigree without using a well-planned breeding or crossbreeding program. Consideration of type of cattle and of the kind of environment or management the seedstock were produced in helps predict how they will perform in another person's program. For example, cattle from one geographical region may not perform well in another or cattle developed on a high grain diet may not perform well on a pasture program. In other words, your cattle may not match your resources. Evaluation of breeding stock must include traits of economic significance; for example, use bulls with low to moderate birth weights on heifers. Although we tend to emphasize traits such as adjusted 205-day weights, actual weaning weights or sale weights have more impact on income and thus should be used in making management decisions.

What are the goals of your breeding program? ___________________________________________________________________
_____ Do your animals match your resources
_____ Do you select animals which have been raised in a management program or environment similar to yours?_______________________________________
_____ What traits do you select for or cull against when choosing sires or replacements?__________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________
_____ On what basis do you choose herd sires and where do you purchase sires? _____________________________________________________________
_____ Why did you choose the breeds you have?_____________________________
_____________________________________________________________
    Are there breeds that would better fit your present or potential marketing program?___________________________________________________
__________________________________________________________
    Are there breeds or breeding stock which would better fit your forage or management?________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
_____ On what basis do you sell surplus animals?____________________________
_____ Do you raise or purchase replacement heifers?_________________________
    Could you purchase them more economically than raise them?___________
C. Nutrition management

Grazing system and choice of forages are the key components of a cattle nutrition program. All aspects of grazing, including when and for how long animals graze, change the pasture by affecting plant species diversity, plant population and plant density. In a sustainable system, these changes should improve the pasture's ability to meet the nutritional needs of the animals, minimizing the need for harvested forages and purchased feeds. Most beef cattle producers have two ways of harvesting forages: baling hay or grazing animals. We Americans have tended to allow animals to graze grass down to the ground and then when pasture becomes limiting, feed hay and/or purchased supplements. Producers in other parts of the world avoid the prohibitive costs of baling hay (equipment needs, fertilizer costs, fuel use, etc.) by using management techniques that more efficiently utilize the forage and lessen dependence on harvested forages. By knowing what forage is produced, when and how, we can feed our animals on good pasture for a longer period of time. We can change the forage production curve through management. Additionally, we can impact the animal's needs by changing the time of the greatest nutrient requirement, peak lactation, by timing calving and matching the forage production to the lactation curve. While most people strive to have cows in condition score 5 at calving, the critical point is to have cows gaining weight before breeding.

What are your goals related to nutrition of your cattle program?_____________________
____________________________________________________________________
_____ Does your forage base match your animals' needs--can you meet those needs with pasture?______
    Are cows on best forage at peak lactation and when going into breeding season?_________
    Do you have adequate vegetative forage daily (1800-2500 lbs. dry matter/acre) for lactating cows to gain well before breeding?_____________
    Are calves weaned and cows on good pasture in order to gain weight before winter?______
_____ Does your forage management program ensure adequate forage availability
  1. during the grazing season?_______________________________
    a. do you run out of forage and have to feed hay in late summer?___________
    b. do short pastures decrease performance (weaning weight) of calves?______
  2. to extend grazing season?________________________________
    If not, would more species diversity help either option?_________
_____ Could changing calving season allow you to more adequately meet nutrition requirements of cows with forages you have rather than changing the forage base?___________________
_____ Do you cut hay at the proper time to insure good quality?________________

Under continuous grazing, as the season progresses grazing becomes spotty, as some areas within a pasture are overgrazed and others are undergrazed. Some plants mature and quality decrease while other plants do not persist because of depleted root reserves. Consequently, animal performance declines because of poor availability of quality forage and subsequent decreased intake by the grazing animal. Controlled grazing allows pastures to be grazed sooner in the spring and later in the fall, with an availability of forage that allows high animal intake and at the same time gives other pastures the opportunity to grow and rest. Some producers can accomplish this simply by closing gates and using separate pastures in sequence.

_____ Do you have enough pastures to set up a rotational grazing program, i.e. move cattle at least once a week?______________
    If not, can pastures be divided easily?_____________________
    Do your sources of water for livestock prevent dividing pastures?___________________
_____ Do your cattle have access to all your pastures in late winter when cool season forages first start to break dormancy, so that grazing defoliates the plants and keeps the forage from growing rapidly? _____________________________
_____ Do your animals spot-graze pastures to the point that some areas are severely overgrazed and some areas undergrazed and then mowed off?____________
_____ Does your haying program include cutting pastures which are not needed for grazing rather than allocating areas of the farm just for hay production?______
_____ Do you use haying to control pasture growth and cut the excess early enough to allow adequate regrowth with optimum species diversity before hot, dry weather?___________________
_____ Are special grazing techniques such as forward grazing used to meet the needs of animals with higher nutrition requirement than others and also properly utilize available forage?_____
_____ Is stock density high enough to allow adequate control of pastures or could you group cattle to increase stock density?_______________________________

The comfort zone of beef cattle is 30-75° F (effective temperature including wind chill). Outside of that temperature range, cattle have to expend energy to keep warm or cool. A cow of average condition has an increase in energy requirement of 1% per degree drop below 30 degrees; a thin cow has an increase of 3% per degree drop. Thus, having adequate condition on cattle going into the winter can help decrease maintenance costs and save feed/hay. Approximately 30 days before onset of cold weather, condition score cattle and address the following:

_____ Do you prepare your cattle for winter by adding condition?______________
_____ If spring calving, have calves been weaned before cold weather to decrease nutrition requirements of cows, and allow cows to regain weight by putting them on good quality pastures? __________
_____ Are some of the mature cows too thin going into winter ?_______________
  _____ too fat for good calving? ________________________________
  _____ are replacement heifers growing adequately and in good but not excessive condition?___
  _____ are your thin cows on the best pastures with adequate availability of quality forage?_____
  _____ do they need some grain supplementation if forage availability is limiting?____________
_____ Have pastures been conditioned for putting weight gain on cows by stockpiling high quality forage? (over 2500 lbs of dry matter per acre of vegetative forage)?________

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II. FARM MANAGEMENT

A. Records

The decision-making process needs to include a standard analysis of farm records to evaluate production and to determine if and how production might be increased economically. Many times decisions are based on recommendations to increase the biological efficiency of an operation, e.g., increasing weaning weights of calves, without any thought given to the economic efficiency ( i.e., does increasing weaning weight increase net return.) Actual costs of production should be calculated for each farm, as cost averages from other operations may be quite different from your own farm's costs.

What are your farm management goals?__________________________________
_____ Do you make good use of a record-keeping system?___________________
_____ Do you evaluate production based on per acre costs or per cow costs when making decisions?___________________
_____ Do you know your actual cost of production per acre?________________ per animal?________________
_____ How many pounds of beef do you sell per acre?_____________per cow?________________

Hay is a major expense for many cattle operations. Usually grass is considered cheap, but baling hay costs are quite variable, depending on land values, fertility costs, labor, and availability of equipment. Before a producer makes decisions related to producing or buying hay, using more pasture (stockpiling) or feeding hay a longer period, these costs should be calculated.

_____ Do you know what it costs to produce, harvest, and feed a bale of hay?_____
  graze an acre of pasture?________________
  graze one cow for one day?______________
B. Farm planning

One goal of a whole farm plan is to determine whether the land can be used more efficiently; for example, grazing cattle and sheep on the same pasture or using goats to control brush. Additional enterprises such as poultry or hogs can add to the income of the farm.

_____ Would diversification with other animal species add some benefit or add extra income?________
  Would adding other species to your grazing program better utilize the forage?_________
  If so, what are the considerations? (e.g., labor, predation, fencing, market, hunting) ___________________________________________________

Fertilization of pastures can be a great expense for cattle producers. A rotational grazing program helps to minimize these costs by having the manure from the grazing animals distributed back on pastures rather than in isolated areas, such as around shade trees, water tanks, etc. Another opportunity is to use chicken litter or similar on-farm products to increase organic matter and nutrient content of soils. Conversely, producers who have used chicken litter extensively might be able to sell litter for cash toward purchased fertilizer (lime, N). An important but often overlooked component of a good pasture fertility program is level of organic matter, which influences the microbial activity of the soil.

_____ Are you testing soils in each pasture or field at least every three years?______
_____ Are you making effective use of your fertilizer expenditures?______________
_____ Are you using the additional forage you produce with purchased inputs?_____
_____ Could you decrease N fertilizer through more effective use of legumes?______
_____ Are you using chicken litter/animal manures/municipal sludge products?______
  Would using those products be more cost-effective than using commercial
fertilizer?______
  Would using components of fertilizer, i.e. K or N, be more effective?___________
_____ Would using lime allow a decrease in fertilizer expenditures?______________

Equipment expenditures on a farm can be very costly, yet also be part of the tax consideration, which has an impact on purchasing decisions. Proper sizing of equipment to the job and minimizing equipment maintenance and operational costs are also important. In some cases, hay can be purchased or custom baling used to decrease farm costs. Some producers make equipment purchases for non-economic reasons and have equipment which cannot be justified based on economic return to the farm.

_____ Do you own more equipment than you need?_________________________
_____ Could you decrease the equipment you need if you relied more on grazing?_________________
_____ Do you buy equipment for tax reasons, even though you don't need the equipment?___________
_____ Does that equipment expenditure for tax reasons really increase your net income?____________

Feed expenses are usually estimated at 70% of the cost of maintaining a cow for a year. Having to purchase supplemental feeds and using harvested forages can increase the expenses of a cattle operation. As referenced earlier, good grazing management can decrease those out-of-pocket expenses. Conversely, there are times when supplements can be used very effectively and buying hay might be more economical than producing it on the farm.

_____ What are your primary purchased feed expenditures? protein, energy, minerals, hay
_____ Could you decrease these by
  better grazing management to be more efficient in pasture utilization?________
  improving fertility of your pastures?________________________________
  harvesting better quality hay?_____________________________________
  having better or more diverse forage species to extend the grazing season?________
  changing the time of year when nutrition requirements of animals are
highest? ________
_____ How do you know which, if any, of the purchased feeds you actually need?________
C. Marketing

Marketing cattle is an area where most producers could easily increase their net income. Knowing when to buy and sell cattle has a large impact on returns. There are many options producers can consider, such as being part of a marketing alliance or cooperative, creating markets for specialty products, timing marketing better or owning cattle longer.

What are your marketing goals?________________________________________
_____ Do you market your animals when the price is best?____________________
_____ Could you change your management (forage, calving season, etc.) to allow you to sell cattle on a more timely basis?________________________________
_____ Other than the local sale barn, what merchandising options are there for your cattle?__________
_____ Would it be cost effective to retain ownership of your cattle through another growth phase?__________
_____ Could you produce a more marketable product with a change in your breeding program?_______
_____ Are you in an area where niche marketing could be established, such as near a metropolitan area where direct-marketed lean beef would have potential?_________
_____ Could you cooperate with neighbors to produce packages of cattle to be marketed at a premium, i.e., potload of similar cattle?__________________

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III. FARM GOALS

Farm planning is an on-going process which requires that farm families to know where they want to go and how to get there. In determining goals, most farmers have a general idea but lack specific plans. Putting goals on paper can provide a framework for making management decisions.

_____ As you consider the goals of your farming operation, are you examining your livestock production program to make it more cost effective?_________
  assessing the soil, plant, and water resources?_________________________
  analyzing your marketing program and the diversity of products available to market?_______
  evaluating your quality of life from a family and community perspective?______

Once you have written down your goals, other decisions are easier. You can plan for farm expenditures rather than buying what seems to be needed at the time.

_____ How do you decide your priorities for expenditures on the farm with a given amount of money?
  equipment ___________________________________________________
  feed ________________________________________________________
  pasture ______________________________________________________
  fertilizer______________________________________________________
  fencing ______________________________________________________
  animals______________________________________________________
_____ Do you know your return on investment for those expenditures?___________
_____ Is the farm income distributed over the year—are there things you can do to spread out income?_________________

The following questions are a summary of your thought processes to this point. The three sections that follow are intended to be stand alone assessment tools for evaluating pastures, soils and watershed management to finalize your farm assessment.

_____ Have your perceptions of your weaknesses and strengths changed?
_____ What are the highest priority areas for you to emphasize?
_____ Have you put on paper your goals for your family and your operation?

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IV. ASSESSMENT OF INDIVIDUAL PASTURES

Routine pasture assessment can be used effectively as a feed budgeting process as well as an evaluation of how well your grazing program is working and how individual pastures (paddocks) should be managed. Individual pastures should be regularly evaluated to determine short-term management decisions, such as grazing pressure, fertility needs, forage availability within a short time span, potential for hay production, etc. Pasture assessment can be as important to your operation as animal evaluation (and economically, may be more important). Each pasture should be assessed at various times of the year. Additionally, when assessing a pasture, evaluate how previous management and use over time has influenced the pasture.

What are your pasture management goals?____________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________
_____ Do you need to make better-quality forage available, which might be accomplished with haying earlier or using better grazing practices? _______________________
_____ Do you know how individual pastures rank in productivity?__________________ ______________________________________________________________
_____ Are there spots of bare ground within pastures?__________________________
_____ Do you have any erosion problems?___________________________________
_____ What changes in plant species are occurring?____________________________
_____ Are these changes desirable or undesirable?_____________________________
_____ Is the pasture grazed fairly uniformly or are there areas of spot grazing?________________________________________________________
_____ Is there adequate but not excessive residue in the pasture?__________________
_____ Is the residue decomposing properly or is it thick enough to contribute to lack of seedling development of other species, such as clover?
_____________________________________________________________
_____ Are the animals doing a good job of controlling the edible weeds, such as ragweed, when vegetative?_________________________________________________
_____ Which weeds or brush are not being controlled by grazing? _____________________________________________________________
_____ Are there compaction or plugging problems?____________________________
_____ Could a change in water/mineral feeder location or the shape of pasture impact the grazing pattern?_________________________________________________
_____ Is wildlife habitat appropriate?_______________________________________
_____ Is water runoff excessive, especially on slopes?__________________________
_____ Do you need more forage, which might be gained through an application of fertilizer or a longer rest period?____________________________________________
_____ Are pastures resting long enough to allow proper plant regrowth and replenishment of root reserves?
_____________________________________________________________
_____ Are there areas of pastures which need fertilizer and other areas which don't? _____________________________________________________________
_____ Which field areas dry out first, second, and last under drought conditions? _____________________________________________________________
_____ Do you have a plan for which pastures are used at various times of the year?_________________________________________________________
_____ Do you drive on pastures, which may retard pasture growth and create compaction problems?_____________________________________________________

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V. ASSESSMENT OF SOILS

Soil is the natural resource foundation of any farm. Proper management of the soil is the basis for managing the plant-animal interface necessary for a sustainable livestock farm. Whole farm planning includes assessment of soil characteristics. First, study how everyday management influences nutrients, moisture levels and tilth. This is the basis for decisions on fertility and grazing, which will affect species diversity and erosion problems. It is important to understand where your quality soil is as well as how to improve the quality of all your soil. A nutrient management plan can be used to determine sources of nutrients which can improve the farm's productivity at minimum costs.

_____ Do you have soil maps of your farm and understand the productivity index of each soil type? _____
_____ Do you have specific problems to address, such as fragipans, poor drainage, compaction?______
_____ What is the microbial activity in your soil?___________________________
What does the soil smell like?____________________________________
_____ What is the tilth?_____________________________________________
What does a handful feel like?___________________________________
_____ Do you have a nutrient management plan for each pasture?_______________
_____ When was your last soil test?_____________________________________
_____ What is soil pH, salinity and sodium (Na) saturation?___________________
_____ Do you routinely use lime?_______________________________________
_____ What is the organic matter level in your pastures/fields?__________________
_____ How deep is the dark surface layer?________________________________
Is it less than the natural undisturbed soils in your area?__________________
_____ How many days does it take grass or crops to exhibit drought stress?_________________
_____ How hard are earthworms to find? ________________________________
_____ Is there evidence of earthworm activity such as castings on the surface?_____________________________________________________
_____ How fast do manure piles and forage thatch degrade?___________________
_____ Are any plants yellow, spotty or purple-colored?______________________
_____ Do you have any soil nutrient deficiencies or imbalances that impair forage and animal production?__________________________________________________
_____ Do you have considerable variation of productivity level and nutrient level within pastures? ____________________________________________________
_____ Are soil fertility levels adequate to meet forage production targets?_________
Are forage production targets too high, leaving inputs that are undesirable for environmental or economic reasons?________________________________
_____ Would a change in fencing allow better use of pastures based on productivity of soil?_________
_____ Are any erosion problems due to a lack of water flow control, lack of adequate cover or lack of infiltration?____________________________________________
_____ Do you have soil compaction problems in any fields?____________________
_____ How long does it take for standing water to seep in?____________________
_____ Do you regularly sample soil of individual fields or soil types?______________

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VI. ASSESSMENT OF WATERSHED

Every farm is part of a watershed. Water flows onto the farm and leaves the farm. What happens in the process is the responsibility of the farm owner and can have an impact on the water quality downstream as well as influencing the soil erosion problems on the farm. An understanding of the geological formations of the farm may assist in evaluating water flow and managing the water quality.

_____ What are the water drainage patterns into and from your farm? _________________________________________________________
_____ Are there litter banks (debris piles, usually wood) present anywhere on your land?_____________________________________________________
_____ How efficient are you in retaining water on your farm and in your soils?_____________________________________________________

Riparian areas are the edges of streams, wet weather creeks, ditches or any area where water flows through at various times of the year. Management of these areas can have an impact on erosion and water quality.

_____ Do you have major riparian areas, with flowing water in them most of the time?______________
_____ Do you have riparian areas with large amounts of water at limited times during the year?_______
_____ Do you have a management plan for your riparian areas?_____________________
_____ Does your plan allow livestock frequent, limited access to help manage the vegetation of riparian areas?__________________
_____ Are riparian areas managed for wildlife habitat?_______________________
_____ Do you have buffer zones adjacent to the riparian areas?________________
_____ Are farm ponds full of algae?_______________________
_____ Considering your whole farm as a watershed, do nutrients which contribute to poor water quality leave your farm?_______________________
_____ Do you time your fertilizing or spreading of litter/manure to prevent runoff of nutrients?___________________________________________________
_____ Do aquatic organisms downstream indicate good water quality?____Has this changed?______
_____ Do you use pesticides/herbicides tactically for localized infestation?_________
_____ If using poultry litter or other manures, do you test soil to monitor nutrient management of individual pastures?____________________
_____ Does your soil absorb and retain rainfall?____________________
_____ Is the vegetation adequate to allow water penetration into the soil and prevent excessive water flow?_______________________
_____ Are some areas overgrazed to the extent that water flow is excessive?_______
_____ Do you have an understanding of the nutrient flow on your farm (inputs and outputs) and know what percentage retained on the farm?

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VI. SUMMARY

Now that you have completed the assessment of your farm, go back through the questions you indicated as high priority for increasing economic or environmental sustainability. Then use appropriate reference materials/educators to explore potential changes in your management program or planning. Spend time reviewing the areas that could be emphasized to allow you to meet your goals.

Related ATTRA materials

Listed below are ATTRA publications that may be useful for addressing many of the questions presented in the checksheet. These may be ordered at no charge by calling the ATTRA office, 1-800-346-9140.

Pastures: Sustainable Management
Rotational Grazing
Ruminant Nutrition for Graziers
Nutrient Cycling in Pastures
Sustainable Soil Management
Integrated Parasite Management for Livestock
Paddock Design, Fencing, and Water Systems for Controlled Grazing
Beef Marketing Alternatives
Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy Producers
Grass-Based and Seasonal Dairying

Some web browsers may not display this checksheet the right way. The print version of this checksheet is formatted for readability and ease of use when filling in answers to the questions on the checksheet. To receive a printed copy, contact ATTRA at 1-800-346-9140

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Beef Farm Sustainability Checksheet
By Ron Morrow
Sherry Vogel, HTML Production
IP129
Slot 129

 

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This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014