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Will this be your last year in the cow/calf business?

Unfortunately, it could be… unless your feed costs can be kept under control. With cow harvest up almost 10% from year-ago levels

Unfortunately, it could be… unless your feed costs can be kept under control. With cow harvest up almost 10% from year-ago levels, it’s clear that a decent number of cow/calf producers are throwing in the towel and leaving the business, most likely due to increasing cost of production.

In the next 18-24 months (or more, dare I say), it will be vital for cow/calf producers to change their management practices in response to increased forage and fossil fuel costs.Thus, at a time when cost-cutting has become vital, smart grazing strategies can reduce reliance on harvested feeds.

Make Your Cows Work for You
Across much of the U.S., hay and forage prices have doubled in the past 2 to 3 years. Although caused by many reasons, these increases are directly hitting the cow/calf sector of the industry. As ranch income from the sale of calves remains relatively flat or declines (due decreased calf and yearling prices caused by high grain prices), the cost end of the profit equation should be the priority on cow/calf operations.

Cow winter feed cost is the largest expense on most ranches, but efforts to reduce it will help to ensure a profit. The more days cattle can graze vs. being hand-fed harvested feeds, the lower feed cost will be.

It costs less for cattle to harvest feed on their own, compared to equipment doing it for them. It appears that ranch and farm activities that depend on any one of 3 key factors – fossil fuel, equipment, or labor – will drive up costs. Therefore, avoiding dependence on tractors, balers, trucks, and employees to get cows through the winter is a great place to start.

It Costs a Lot to Make Hay
Before we discuss options for extending grazing, let’s first look closely at the costs associated with baling hay. Costs for custom hay harvesting vary widely; however, it appears that the ultimate cost to produce a ton of hay is fairly similar. Check out rates for yourself at by searching for “custom harvest rates” on the National Agricultural Statistics Service website.

Custom hay swathing rates run anywhere from $15-25/acre, somewhat depending on how dense or light a forage stand is. Assuming one acre generates about 1.5 tons of baled hay per cutting, swathing costs about $10-17/ton. Custom baling rates for small bales are at about $0.50-0.60/bale or $13-16/ton (if a bale weighs 75 lbs). If raking is needed, another $5-8/acre (or $3-5/ton) should be added. Finally, unless there are a bunch of unemployed high school kids around, custom stacking of small bales costs around $0.45-0.55/bale or $12-15/ton.

Using these estimates, getting your standing forage cut, raked, baled, and stacked will cost $38-53/ton – and that’s just to get it harvested. You will likely have additional costs for transportation, storage, and feeding.

Costs to transport hay from the field to a storage site or feeding location vary tremendously, and depend on bale size (small vs. large) and shape (square vs. round). Retrieving and hauling small square bales (about 4 ton per stack) typically includes a fee to pick up the stack ($15-30/stack) and a per-mile fee ($3.50-4.00/mile). So, if small bales are hauled 20 miles from the field, for every ton moved it will cost $20-28/ton. In contrast, loading and hauling large bales on a semi could run $15-20/ton (based on a $4.50/mile rate) depending on truck size, availability, and hauling distance. However, significant equipment costs will be incurred for loading and unloading large bales.

Based on these current rough estimates, the total cost for the custom harvest and transport of a ton of hay appears to be running at least $53-81/ton.

It Costs a Lot to Feed Hay
Beyond the cost for baling, hauling, and storing hay, there is also a significant cost associated with feeding it. Recently, Ron Torell and colleagues with University of Nevada Extension reported on the cost to use a ranch pickup. Whether using a pickup for work or pleasure, today’s elevated costs for everything from fuel to tires to the initial purchase price should be causing cattle producers to think twice about depending on their pickup to feed cows.

Using on a modified spreadsheet from Texas A&M University, they calculated that the current cost to drive a one-ton diesel pickup was estimated at $0.67/mile. Total cost could be reduced by depending on an older and smaller pickup ($0.34/mile) vs. using a dream $40,000 one-ton pickup ($0.91/mile). And, variables including fuel efficiency (assumed at 15 mpg), miles driven per year (estimated at 20,000), and price per gallon ($4/gal) could also be managed to reduce cost per mile driven.

Based on these numbers, using a pickup to feed cows daily adds up. For instance, the estimated cost to feed 1,000 lbs of hay to a group of 50 cows with a pickup would be $6.70/day or 13.40/ton (assuming a 10-mile roundtrip). A nicer, newer pickup would cost $9.10/day or $18.20/ton (using $0.91/mile). As a result, your hay now costs $13-18/ton more. This adds up to $66-99/ton for hay, not accounting for labor or other equipment costs (e.g. loader tractor, feeders, etc.) required to deliver and feed it.

Options for Extending the Grazing Season
Several options exist for extending the grazing season in order to reduce hay harvesting and feeding costs. These include:
1. Stockpiling perennial forages for deferred grazing.
2. Windrowing forages for deferred grazing.
3. Grazing crop residues or aftermath.

Stockpiling. Unfortunately, at this point in the year it is probably too late to create and utilize stockpiled forages this fall, if you have not already planned ahead to do so. However, if you are contemplating mowing and baling your hay fields one last time this year – you might think twice.

Stockpiled perennial forages can provide a great source of good quality pasture (notice, I didn’t say “low” quality pasture) that matches perfectly with the reduced nutrient requirements of pregnant cows (mid-gestation) during the fall.

The quality of stockpiled forages is affected directly by factors including when the stockpiling was initiated, forage species present, and the period of time from stockpiling until grazing. The best way to utilize stockpiled forage involves the use of movable electric fencing that is moved often (ideally every few days) so that cows are forced to consume all forage that is available.

Windrowing. Mowing hay and raking it into heavy windrows once it is dry can provide an opportunity to reduce the nutritional decline of forages left out in the field (as can occur with stockpiling), but also avoid the high costs associated with baling and handling hay. The windrowing cost only makes up about 20% of the total cost to produce a stack of hay bales.

In some climates, windrowing is not feasible due to an inability to avoid moisture damage and rotting. However, in climates that are conducive to windrowing it is possible to produce windrowed forage that is quite similar in quality to baled forage. As with grazing stockpiled forages, it is best to use movable electric fencing to force cows to consume all forage that is available and avoid wasting windrowed hay.

Crop Residues. The silver lining to the rise in prices for grains like corn and wheat is that there is now a tremendous amount of aftermath once those crops are harvested. This includes stubble in wheat, barley, and oat fields, along with corn stalks available for grazing after combining occurs in the fall. Although low in protein, these low quality forages actually contain a decent amount of low-priced energy which can be accessed with limited but strategic protein supplementation.

It should be noted that deferred grazing of stockpiled forages, windrows, or crop residues can lead to more risks and challenges. Weather can be a major factor, particularly if snow arrives early and is deep enough to prevent access to forages. This is especially problematic if cows cannot be accessed easily and an ice sheet or layer of crust completely prevents cows from grazing.

Grazing in geographic areas, fields, or during times of year that are excessively muddy can cause significant damage to a forage stand. Therefore, it is necessary to plan ahead and utilize these grazing strategies soon after your traditional grazing resources have been used up during late summer through late fall. Producers should be extremely careful if they plan to depend on these options for mid-winter grazing.

Evidence of Stockpiling Successes
Research in eastern Canada in the late 1990s documented the value of deferred grazing of stockpiled forages. From early October through mid-December, a trial was conducted over a 2-year period that included 60 dry beef cows in mid-gestation. The cows were either fed round bales, grazed on a grass pasture, or grazed on a legume/grass pasture. The pastures contained stockpiled forages that were strip grazed using portable fences moved on a once-a-daily or twice-a-week basis.
During the 70 day trial in the first year, all treatments had similar increases in body weight (about 130-140 lbs gained per cow) and back fat. In the subsequent calving and rebreeding periods, there were no differences for birth weight, calving ease, or pregnancy rate. Also, the number of times the fence was moved per week did not affect performance. Interestingly, in the second year the grazed cows gained more than the cows fed hay (142 vs. 120 lbs, respectively), but back fat was not different.
Iowa State researchers also compared strip grazing of corn stock residue or stockpiled forages with drylot feeding and reported similar results. Cows grazing stockpiled tall fescue-alfalfa had greater body weight gain than all other treatments. Additionally, cows grazed on corn stalk residues or stockpiled forages had 57-85 more days of grazing compared to drylot cows. This resulted in about 1,500-2,600 lbs less hay required to maintain body condition compared to drylot fed cows. Using an estimated cost of $66-99/ton to harvest and feed hay, this calculates out to about $50-129/cow that could be saved during a winter.

Improve Your Grazing Skills
The University of Idaho offers a hands-on, intensive 4-day training in Management Intensive Grazing (MiG) at the Nancy Cummings Research Education, & Extension Center, north of Salmon, Idaho. The “Lost Rivers Grazing Academy” is a very successful boots-on-the-ground workshop intended to improve attendees’ understanding and skills in livestock grazing management. Good grass management can benefit both livestock and increase forage production and quality.

Workshops are held twice annually in mid-June and mid-September (the next workshop will be September 16-19, 2008). Featured instructors include pasture guru Jim Gerrish as well as University of Idaho Extension faculty.

During the past decade, participants in the workshop have successfully reduced the dollars and time that they have spent fertilizing, harvesting, and feeding hay. In addition, attendees have reported an increase in animal units and net income, along with reclamation of deteriorating pastures.

During the workshop attendees develop skills in designing grazing cells, water systems, and permanent and portable electric fencing. In addition, methods of calculating appropriate stocking rates are taught, along with low-stress animal handling. Typically, about half of the workshop includes classroom instruction and half hands-on work in the field including small-team management of grazing cattle. More information is available at:

The Bottom Line
To survive in the cow/calf business, producers will need to operate within the constraints of elevated costs for wintering cows on forage-based diets. Reducing dependence on harvested forages by extending the grazing season into the late fall can generate substantial savings. Currently, costs associated with the custom harvest, transport, and feeding of hay are about $66-99/ton above the value of the standing forage by itself. This cost may be avoided during the mid- to late-fall if alternate management options can be utilized to force cows to harvest hay on their own – it’s time to make your cows work for you.

Extending the grazing season requires enhanced management expertise in grazing systems. In addition, more advanced planning is necessary to incorporate proven strategies such as grazing stockpiled forages, windrows, or crop residues. Skill-building workshops that improve producers’ understanding and skills in livestock grazing management are readily available. And, in today’s high cost industry, time spent learning these skills will likely pay higher dividends toward a producer’s bottom line vs. continuing to conduct business as usual.