Whether you're out feeding in the cold or just looking out your window at cows eating hay at a cost of $2/cow/day, it should be a wake-up call for all of us. With out-of-control hay prices and prospects for even higher costs in 2008, getting serious about extending the grazing season has never been more important.
Another pressure is hitting ranchers in the West. Increasing pressure on public-lands grazing is forcing many herds off rangeland earlier in the season and delaying spring turnout. Along with reduced numbers on many allotments, this trend means increased days of hay feeding for many ranchers. Coupled with increasing hay prices, this may be a crippling blow for many mid-scale operations.
The hay feeding rut
At the same time, I meet more and more ranchers who are getting completely out of the hay-feeding paradigm or significantly reducing the number of days they feed hay. It isn't one change in their business that's making this transition possible; it usually takes several changes. From what I see, here are the top five moves for getting out of the hay-feeding rut.
Have a plan for year-around grazing. This doesn't mean just hoping you have some grass left over in the fall to use during winter. It means making a critical evaluation of all of your forage resources and mapping out when they can be used optimally.
Develop a calendar of when your stock will have their highest and lowest demands. As an industry, we've given a lot of lip service to matching forage and animal resources, but the majority of ranchers still do a pretty poor job of implementing a sound plan.
Change your calving season to a less demanding time of year. It's much easier to graze a dry, pregnant cow through the winter than a lactating mama.
For many of today's moderate to high milk-producing beef cows, daily forage demand at peak lactation is 50-80% higher than at dry, pregnant maintenance. Late-spring or early-summer calving seasons work well in a lot of ranch country once you change your mind about a few things. I've met very few ranchers who, after trying later calving, returned to winter calving.
Make sure your cattle match your environment and climatic conditions. You really want your cattle to survive and thrive on the native resources of your ranch. The more petroleum and iron you put between the sun's solar energy and your cow's belly, the less profitable you're likely to be.
Cattle should be able to earn their own living. Consider every head of cattle on your place to be a ranch employee. Your primary job as manager is to set up conditions for your employees to do their jobs.
Manage all your pasture and rangeland more intensively. This doesn't mean graze it more intensively, it means manage it more intensively. If you do, you will get more annual production and greater carrying capacity from your land.
Irrigated pastures are still the most productive land in the West and should be managed most intensively. This is one of the easiest places to pick up more grazing days. One of the strongest arguments I can make for Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) in the summertime is to create more winter pasture opportunities.
Change range use from summer grazing to winter grazing. In most environments with degraded rangeland, switching to predominantly winter use is a great strategy for improving range condition. Many public lands offices are very willing to work with ranchers on this kind of positive change. Most are willing to work with you if you have a grazing plan that will help them meet their conservation goals.
You may not need to make all these changes in your operation. It depends on where you are right now. One young rancher I know was a few hundred thousand dollars in debt and getting deeper every year. He was on the brink of losing everything in 1999.
He's now out of debt, beginning to expand, and has a very optimistic view for his children coming into the operation. He did make all the changes listed here to save his ranch, but the biggest change he made was changing his mind.
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208-876-4067 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.