Deepening drought is bringing many Western ranchers to their knees this season. Out of grass, water and options, many are selling bred cows and pairs to meet their bills, while producers from wetter areas snap up the bargains at the auction barns.

But southeast Colorado rancher R.C. Patterson has maintained his options by managing his cattle and handling his feed ingredients in a unique way to make sure his cattle get the nutrients they need on a tightened budget. Patterson is now making the same options available industry wide.

Backed against the wall four years ago with big debt loads on land and cattle, too much to do and too little time to do it, Patterson went looking for answers. The result was his invention of a roughage processor and supplement-feeder system.

“To get a handle the debt service and my head above water, I needed to double my carrying capacity,” he says.

Patterson figured if he could cut winter-feeding time and cost-effectively improve the quality of winter feed, he could handle more cattle. Without having to save grass on his summer country for late-fall grazing, he could also stock that country more heavily during the growing season without harming it.

“We were handling weanling calves, replacement heifers, first-calf heifers, pairs, drys, bulls… and we wanted to feed primarily roughage-based rations geared to their nutrition requirements, with processed hay that still had some stem length, rather than finely ground hay and a concentrate-based ration,” Patterson says.

When he couldn't find a machine to suit him, he designed one. The result is the EZ Ration Processor, now patented and available through dealerships in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas.

Twin feeder chains that run parallel along the processor's flatbed move large square or round bales toward a vertical series of four cutter bars across the front of the unit. The separate tracks allow two types of roughage to be combined in varying amounts by individually adjusting the speed of each feeder chain.

A 2,000-lb.-capacity supplement bin and a weight-calibrated auger delivery can be mounted on the front of the unit. This allows the processed roughage to be top-dressed with supplement at desired rates, and it's easily adjustable.

Three hydraulic shifting units mounted in the truck or tractor cab allow one person to control the hay mixture and supplement addition. A digital read-out grain scale measures pounds of supplement and rate of distribution.

From the prototype four years ago to today's commercially manufactured units, Patterson says the processor's cost-saving ability has surprised him.

“The first day we used it to feed, I noticed we used less hay than normal,” he says. “That worried me, but the cattle seemed full and content. As the weeks went by, we never fed as much hay as we'd expected to. The cattle looked good, stayed in good flesh and there wasn't a lot of wasted hay left over.”

Money-Saving Efficiency

Other users of the machine have had similar experiences. Cee Arnett, maintenance manager for XIT Feeders, Dalhart, TX, and former feed manager for the lot, says the processor has saved them the cost of one full employee, including benefits. That's more than the initial cost of the machine, he adds.

“We can feed as much hay in an hour with the ration processor as used to take a whole day,” he says. “A critical factor for us is being able to load multiple large square or round bales at once and feed continuously without having to stop and reload the bed.”

Mark Miller, XIT's nutrition consultant and a member of Armbruster Consulting of Stillwater, OK, says the machine allows roughage to be distributed to the cattle as needed, rather than “when convenient.”

That translates into no empty bunks, and cattle acclimate to feed bunks more quickly, he says. XIT has a one-time capacity of 75,000 head, and more than 1,800 tons of hay were fed last year — all of it with a truck-mounted EZ Ration Processor, Miller says.

“XIT uses a mixture of grass hay and sorghum or other roughage as it's available,” he says. “We can mix quality and types of roughage using the processor. The hay is preconditioned — not chopped fine — and that cuts down on waste. It's more palatable, and we can buffer cattle better, especially at the starting phase.”

Rob Goebel, a rangeland nutrition consultant based in Trinchera, CO, advocates the ration processor for range cattle as well as those in lots.

“Used right, you can run more cattle using the ration processor,” he says. “You can blend qualities of forage and still make it palatable for them; and using the supplement bin, you can add concentrates for energy and protein.”

The preconditioning aspect of the processor is “the first chewing process,” Goebel points out. “When cattle chew forage or dry roughage, they first break down that tough, fibrous stem wall. In the ruminant digestive process, they swallow then regurgitate and re-chew that fiber… Digestion takes a long time, and it takes larger quantities of forage to provide the nutrients the animal needs.”

Goebel explains the machine's preconditioning step speeds up that natural digestive process, which translates into less feed for the same result.

With hay prices at $160/ton and rising in mid-August, maximizing return will be critical to producers in all production segments in the coming months, says John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef cattle nutritionist. He says coarse-chopped or preconditioned roughage decreases waste and increases consumption.

Paterson advocates limit-feeding concentrates, such as whole corn, in range conditions to augment energy and protein levels. With such supplementation, he says, lower quality roughage can be used, and cattle can still maintain adequate flesh and energy.

Keeping Options Open

Goebel said he's worked with Patterson on some informal feeding trials, using his own 200-head cowherd. Using the ration processor cut his input costs by half due to increased digestibility and less waste.

“What we found was that, instead of figuring about $2/head/day for supplemental feed, we were feeding a least-cost, roughage-based ration that was custom-mixed and met all our nutritional needs but cost just 60¢ to 70¢/head/day,” Patterson says. “We could buy the more affordable, less palatable roughage cattle normally wouldn't eat and mix it with some tastier, more costly hay. The cattle ate well, and we didn't break the budget to do it.”

Patterson adds that in drought situations, if a range operator has water for his cattle, he can supplement roughage — even in the summer — cheaper than he can sell and re-buy cows when the drought situation passes.

Goebel agrees. He admits he's not a fan of supplemental feeding of range cattle and that he “was very skeptical of the ration processor, initially.” But Goebel says he now believes the ration processor is “another option to help producers hang on in this drought and to manage their cattle better.”

For more information on the EZ Ration Processor, call 800/242-9599 or visit www.ezration.com.

Debra Hood is a Colorado-based freelance writer on agricultural topics.

Running The Numbers

With reasonable moisture in R.C. Patterson's country, south of Kim, CO, most ranchers traditionally figure about 36 acres to a cow-calf unit/year. That equates to about 3 acres/animal unit month (AUM) for summer pasture and 3-5 acres/AUM for winter pasture.

Patterson figures that if a rancher leases ground for $3/acre, the cost is $108/year/cow unit. With an average supplemental-feed cost of $65/cow/year, that's an annual overhead of $173/cow. Using traditional herd and forage management, that 7,200-acre ranch will carry about 200 cows (7,200 divided by 36 acres/AUM/year), he adds.

By changing the herd management, using least-cost rations and the processed roughage for a 180-day feeding period, and running on pasture for the other 180 days at $3/AUM, the forage requirement drops to 18 acres/AUM.

“Feeding a ration at 60¢ to 70¢/day/animal unit, your feed costs go up from $65 to $126,” Patterson admits. But with the reduced pasture-lease costs, overhead remains at about $180, or only slightly more than in the traditional scenario.

“But, when you do that, the same 7,200-acre ranch can support 400 cow units/year, not just 200,” he says. “You've kept your per-unit overhead about the same but doubled your carrying capacity. That can make the difference between profit and loss, breakeven and going under.”