A recent article generated a number of emails to me, most of which were complimentary but a couple criticized me for not “feeding” cows. The messages were short, but I got the impression I was being criticized for abusing the animals. I hope those who know me consider me an advocate for good care of the animals under our stewardship.
Admittedly, I often encourage readers to replace “fed feed” with “grazed feed” to any extent possible. I’ve also suggested that what is possible is more than many of us have thought. We should not do the work the cows can do for themselves.
I also think most of us want to be profitable. At the very least, we don’t want to subsidize our ranches or cattle with the salaries from our day jobs or from bank loans that keep pushing us further into debt.
One of the biggest drivers of ranch profitability is replacing fed feed with grazed feed in almost all cases. The only situation where you can afford to put a machine between the mouth of the cow and her feed source is when the feed is a by-product of something else and is very low cost.
Even then you have to wonder, if that by-product is straw or baled cornstalks, would it have been more valuable left on the land to build soil and reduce erosion, or even be grazed by the animal thus leaving the manure on the land? Something, somewhere, becomes less efficient when we have machines do the work that a cow can do for herself. By allowing a cow to do for herself, we eliminate labor, fuel and machine cost.
I always have stressed that cows must be maintained in adequate body condition. I think cows that are expected to calve in late April or May can get by with a little less body condition in winter than cows that will be calving in February or March.
The recommendations we often hear that cows should be in a body condition score (BCS) 5 at calving, and heifers in BCS 6, are good. However, it’s much easier to get cows that calve in late-spring and early-summer to successfully graze through winter than winter-calving cows.
Meanwhile, a heifer with a BCS 5 will be healthy, but you can’t expect the same breed back as you would if she were in BCS 6. Remember, in addition to taking care of her calf, that heifer is still growing; thus, rebreeding is a lower priority for her system.
If you must supplement or even full-feed your cows for a time to maintain these body conditions, you should be willing to do that. However, if that type of feeding is the rule rather than the exception, you might ask if you have the right enterprise for your environment, the right calving season, or if your cows really fit your environment. You must remember that you have a lot of fellow ranchers (competitors in a way) who aren’t feeding their cows.
Low-input feeding done right
In mid-March, I visited Sieben Livestock near Helena, Mont., where the mature cows had been fed very little hay to make the grazable feed last until spring’s green-up. The cows ranged from BCS 5 to a little higher than BCS 6, and appeared content and well cared for.
The feed they were grazing had been stockpiled for the entire growing season to ensure it would be available for winter grazing. Single-strand, electric poly wire fence was used to allocate 2-4 days of grazing at a time, and grazing was quite uniform. Good litter was being left behind for soil health, erosion control, and rainfall or snowmelt infiltration.
It was obvious the cows were well adapted to the area and the management approach of the owners. Weaned calf crop percentage and pregnancy rates on the cows are in the 90s. The animal health and demeanor of the cows, along with the condition of the grazed pastures, indicate that the operators are becoming quite good at this type of wintering.
There are a few people in our business who believe in a “no input” approach and only offer what nature provides. I’ve seen several ranchers be successful in adapting their livestock and management to this approach. Remember, there are two parts to the environment – the natural environment and what we, as managers, add to it.
I personally prefer a “low input” approach, in which we are willing to take the rough edges off the natural environment. I think there can be a good-to-excellent return on the money spent on a little feed used at the right time(s) to get cattle through the toughest situations for our various circumstances.
It seems like there are at least a few days each year that can be real tough on the best of cattle, and I like to help them through those times. If you calve ahead of green grass, you will probably need to supplement protein ahead of calving, and perhaps until green-up comes. If you calve after green grass comes, you could be breeding on yellow grass and may need to supplement just before and during your breeding season.
Then there are the deep, crusted snows and droughts that come occasionally but perhaps not every year. We must have a contingency plan for such events, and this will usually entail some feeding. However, don’t mentally and emotionally exaggerate these tough times, and feed much longer and more than is necessary. Watch the cows’ body condition and let it lead you to good decisions.
When grazing in the winter, supplementing protein in a timely manner is critical when you are first getting your cows to adapt to winter grazing. As the cows become adapted, you can become a little more stingy with fed feeds and supplements, and still maintain good condition and get good performance.
So, here are my six recommended steps for feeding cows:
- Decide if it’s economically feasible to winter cows in your area.
- Reduce haying, thus making more winter graze available.
- Lengthen the grazing season until you perhaps graze all winter.
- Pay close attention to the younger animals. They should be grazed separately from mature cows and usually require more supplement than the cows and perhaps need some “fed” feed.
- Cull any cow that doesn’t fit or adapt to your new management.
- Buy the right bulls.
Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager with AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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