In most livestock operations, the largest expense is winter feed. As a grazier, it has been my goal to plan a grazing rotation so there is high quality, high volume forage available in the fall and winter. This fall has tested my flexibility once again and has once again shown me the importance of having good quality stockpiled forage.
Last spring, I moved to another ranch. The first day of employment was May 28. When I arrived, there were no cattle out on grass! I started to panic a bit because I knew if the grass did not get clipped within the next three weeks, there would be crap for fall/winter grazing. Getting cattle out and moving became an imperative! It did not matter that the fencing was a mess, that cows were still calving, or that there were no hired hands. Somehow, I had to start clipping grass. In three days, there were 2200 head of cows and yearlings out on grass. That was June 1.
Since June 1 a lot has happened, just like a lot happens every year. This year it started raining June 6 and hasn’t quit. It has been a difficult year to be a farmer making hay and a rancher buying hay. This is to say, hay quality has gone down, but the price has gone up. Here is where good quality stockpile really shines. Before I get into the economics of stockpiled forage, let me explain my method for stockpiling forage.
It is my experience that fall/winter grazing is determined during the first rotation in the spring. Therefore, I like to drift into spring grazing. That means animals have access to feed and stockpiled forage at the same time. However, they keep moving from paddock to paddock similar to a summer rotation. The animals will let you know when they are finished eating put up feed by leaving the feed untouched.
Having the animals move through your paddocks ‘wakes up’ the grass in two ways. First, the hoof action draws out the frost in the same manner as hoof action in the winter drives frost in. In my oilfield days, during spring break up we would keep all traffic off one road/trail out of the bush until the very end because any traffic over that road would draw out the frost and it would become a muddy, near impassable bog.
The second way the grass is ‘awoke’ is by the friction when animals tear the grass. I don’t know exactly how it works, but somehow that friction gets the grass going in the spring. This means that you can get a jump on starting your stockpiling.
At the latitude where I have been grazing for the last 19 years, a 35-day rotation on the first graze is a pretty safe number to use. Of course, the conditions will dictate whether you go longer or shorter from that number. As you go further south, your average may be closer to 40 days, but if you go much longer than that you will end up with ‘dry cow feed’ as your stockpiled forage.
As I have mentioned earlier, the grass needs to be clipped on the first pass. Now is not the time to MOB graze and put down a heavy mat of vegetation on the soil. About 10 years ago I stopped focusing on the grass during the first rotation and focused on my grazing chart. When I was concentrating on the grass I ended up staying in paddocks until there was a nice even graze. This created a recovery period that was much too long and gave me stage 3 grasses for the rest of the year including Fall/Winter. Now I give the animals the whole paddock. They will walk the entire area nipping only the very tips of plants. Many times, I have been tempted to leave them one more day because they barely touched the sward. However, when I do a good walk through, I can see little bites on almost all the plants. (When grazing sheep you might have to look a little bit harder!)
Each year this method is followed, the better stockpile there is for winter grazing. The more confident I become with the method, the better the results. When discussing the importance of quality stockpile with people, I often hear ‘my cows are good scavengers and don’t need much to survive the winter.’ Certainly, having cows like that is a great asset to any operation. However, what happens when you require forage for more than just a dry pregnant cow?
That’s When Flexibility Pays!
That’s what happened to us two falls ago. We had a small group of yearlings that were supposed to be marketed during the third week of September. Unfortunately, the market was pretty weak at that time. Since we had ample, good quality forage, we could keep the yearlings for another six weeks. The price rebounded and the animals gained 2lb/day (after shrink) in that period. The owner was pretty happy.
This fall has proven to be another year requiring flexibility. The ranch I am currently managing runs cow/calf pairs and yearlings. The yearlings are fed into the feedlot owned by the same people. The initial plan was to ship the 500 feeder heifers to the feedlot the last week of September. The herd of 600 replacement heifers were scheduled to go the end of October. Further, another 350 dry cows were to arrive at the ranch mid-October. Finally, stockpiled grass is required for 800 cows to calve on next May. “No problem!” I said because we have lots of grass.
It’s a good thing I always write my plans in pencil! Apparently, the price for fat cattle is increasing every week. That means there is no room in the feedlot until the fats are sold and who knows when that will be. Compound that with the price of hay (the cost to bale graze a dry cow is over $2/day), and I have been charged with keeping 950 dry cows and 1100 yearlings out on grass as long as possible! By having good quality, high volume stockpiled forage, all that is required is to erase the old plan and pencil out a new plan. If all we had was poor quality forage, grazing 1100 yearlings on top of the dry cows, becomes quite a challenge.
Now let me share my economic thinking on stockpiled grass. I know it may bore a lot of readers, however, to me it is the reason we stockpile forage. As I wrote earlier, it is going to cost about $2/day to feed a cow this winter. There will be 950 dry pregnant cows on the ranch. That means, for every day of stockpiled grass we can utilize, the ranch is saving $1900 in bought feed. Following is a real example of how significant stock piled forage can be.
We have a property that was grazed with the breeding heifers twice during the going season. It has a good perimeter cross fence, but no internal fencing. If it is cross fenced into seven paddocks, there is about 20 days of stockpiled grass for the cow herd. The cost to fence is ~$11,000 (materials and labor). Twenty days of grazing is worth $38,000 (20 days X $1900/day) of bought feed. So, I think it makes sense to cross fence that property!
As I mentioned, the owners of this ranch also have a feedlot. Although I don’t have anything to do with that operation, I like to know what is happening over there. The other day I stopped in and the owner (let’s just call him Chad), gave me a tour of the newly weaned calves that were bought. They were out on beautiful, lush, green forage. Those calves looked happy and content.
For the past 10-15 years the owners have kept their bulls and a few dry cows near the pastures around the feedlot. The two groups are rotated around clipping the grass to keep it fresh for when the calves come in the fall. As well, the regrowth from their silage harvest is kept for the same purpose. During the tour I saw a group of calves eating a mix of annual and perennial ryegrass, brassica, and turnips.
After a few weeks on the stockpiled forage, the calves will get introduced to silage and grain while still out on pasture. The owners have had a great deal of success in terms of increased health and low death loss with their protocol. So much so, that they have trenched water lines out to the paddocks surrounding the feedlot so the animals can stay out grazing when the weather turns cold.
As a final thought on stockpiling forage, I should mention that I only strip graze during the dormant season. In my experience, the growing season is mainly for clipping grass. Yes, there are times when mobbing the animals is required, however, if a person is serious about stockpiling forage, mobbing is the exception not the rule. Even when we were custom grazing yearlings, we followed the same regimen because it gave us the flexibility in the fall to keep them longer if asked, or to bring in dry cows from another source. It didn’t always work, but sometimes your best money is made when feed costs are high and people are looking for alternative methods to over winter a cow.