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Out of Debt and On To Profit – The Sand Ranch Starts Winter Grazing and Stops Haying

sands1-234x185Last week we started a series of articles about Cody and Deanna Sand and how the changes they’ve made since 2011 have gotten them out of debt (think $20,000 in carry over bills after all their calves were sold) to owing nothing AND having a lot more fun ranching. They started by changing their grazing management and calving time. But to make it work, there were a lot more changes to be made and lessons to be learned. This week we’ll share what they’re doing about winter grazing and haying, two of the most expensive parts of a ranching operation.

Winter Grazing

This antique map of North and South Dakota shows how the Missouri River basically splits the two states in half: "West" river on one side and "East" river on the other. Forbes, North Dakota is about where the blue arrow is.
This antique map of North and South Dakota shows how the Missouri River basically splits the two states in half: “West” river on one side and “East” river on the other. Forbes, North Dakota is about where the blue arrow is. The Sands gave up this outdated notion along with this outdated map.

Don’t let “common knowledge” prevent you from trying something new. In this case, common knowledge was that if you weren’t “West River” or on the west side of the Missouri River, you couldn’t winter graze. Cody was thinking about this one night and suddenly realized, “”What the heck, we’re west of the James River.” So they picked a new river to be west of and started winter grazing.

Holistic managers are encouraged to identify “unfair advantages” they might have that will make them more profitable. In this case,the Sands list their winter grazing set up as one of theirs. They’ve developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a farmer who raises corn about 40 miles away. The cattle graze on  1,000 to 1,500 acres of corn stalks, some winter wheat and occasionally sunflowers for most of the winter, and the farmer gets the boost in fertility that the herd leaves behind by breaking down litter and depositing manure and urine. The Sands put up and take fencing down every winter and the farmer supplements the herd with some extra feed when the weather is bad.

The Sands pay a per head per day price for their winter grazing. It’s cheaper than keeping them home and feeding them all winter long, and it works for the landowner. Their cost, about $87.60 per head makes winter their most profitable time.

While winter grazing is great for reducing costs, Cody notes that it won’t work if you don’t change your calving time. If you’re calving before the grass comes up, you’ll have to provide extra feed to meet your cows’ nutritional requirements in the months before and after they calve.

Get Off the Hay Wagon

The Sands started winter grazing well before they quit haying. That meant that the first few winters of grazing they didn’t reduce costs because they paid for the corn stalks as well as all the hay they were putting up. But in spite of the cost, quitting haying was hard.  Cody says they were scared of the “big bad winter” and not having enough feed.

What helped them make the change was looking at the true cost of hay. It was shocking. There was the land cost, the twine, fuel, machinery along with having to spend your whole summer on a tractor. When he added in interest and depreciation it really kicked up the cost. Last, he considered the cost of stacking the hay and then hauling it to cows all winter. It was really expensive!

Though it was scary to leave behind everything they knew and trusted, they knew it was right for their family. When they did stop haying they had a “security blanket” of carry over hay. They figured if they could make it one year without buying hay they would be better off financially. The carry over lasted them two years, improving their savings even more. Now the Sands keep their “carry over hay” in their bank account. They have the money they need to buy feed for that one bad winter that happens about every 10 years.

Though they weren’t haying anymore, they didn’t sell their mower or baler. The baler had depreciated down to nothing, and having the equipment meant they could mow their ditch tops and put up hay for their horses.  They’re also using old bales to help them build up soil organic matter on hillsides where soil quality has deteriorated. That means they have a month’s worth of feed for cows that are grazing in poorer pastures. The trampling and manure distribution are all part of improving these pastures.

Preparing for the Winter “What Ifs”

What if the conditions are too bad to winter graze?People ask the Sands, “What if the conditions are too bad to winter graze?” Cody says the answer is easy for them now. “We’ll just buy the feed we need to get through.”

He explains it this way:

“Just say you get one to two bad years out of ten. Why not save a bunch of money in the good eight?” He thinks a big reason is fear and that’s why you need a plan.

“I don’t recommend stop putting up hay, stop feeding and start winter grazing all at once because you’ll probably have a wreck. We’ve been doing this for many years and our cow herd is becoming pretty savvy at grazing. So now, instead of thinking about feeding for 5 to 6 months in a bad winter, we can pretty much expect to make it until Christmas with grazing. It would have to be pretty bad not to. And it would have to be pretty bad not to turn out on our carryover grass by April 1. And we do have a month’s worth of bale grazing for March. So that leaves January and February. So the question is, can we afford to buy 60 days of feed to get our cows to bale grazing? And the answer is yes. And every year we don’t use our bale grazing that’s more days worth of feed at that time next year.”

What’s Next?

There are plenty of other factors the Sands considered when they started making changes like how to set up and pay for the fencing and water to support their new grazing system and how to manage and market their livestock to return a profit. We’ll talk about more parts of their plan in upcoming articles in this series. And if you’re waiting to hear something about turning CRP into grazing land, stay tuned!

Here’s the next article: New Fencing and Water and CRP Grazing – Ideas for Profitable Ranching From the Sand Ranch.

Click here to read all the articles in this series.


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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