This week’s Classic by NatGLC is from Jim Gerrish. Jim will be speaking about Grazing Lands Economics at the National Grazing Lands Conference in Reno in December, so we thought you’d like to have an idea of what he might cover. Jim is one of over over 50 producers who will be part of the conference talking about innovative grazing management. We hope you’ll join us! Register before October 16 to get the reduced rate of $395, and bring a friend or spouse with you for just $175 more.
Hay feeding still ranks as one of the top costs of being in the cow-calf business in the U.S. The good news is we do see more and more livestock producers ‘Kicking the Hay Habit’ with each passing year. There is much more to kicking the habit than just deciding one day that you’re not going to feed any more hay. It usually takes several management changes to get there.
Here are what I am seeing as the top five moves for getting out of the hay feeding rut.
1. 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 most optimally. Develop a calendar of when your stock are going to have their highest and lowest demands. As an industry we have 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.
2. Change your calving season to a less demanding time of year.
It is 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 when she is 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 switched to later calving who ever went back to winter calving.
3. 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 are likely to be. Cattle should be able to earn their own living. You shouldn’t have to earn it for them. Consider every head of cattle on your place to be a ranch employee. Your primary job as manager is to create a working environment for your employees to do their job.
4. Manage all of your pasture and rangeland more intensively.
This does not mean graze it more intensively, this means manage it more intensively. If you do, you will get more forage production and greater carrying capacity from your land. Simply rationing out what you are already growing is one of the easiest places to pick up more grazing days from every acre. One of the strongest arguments I can make for Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) in the summertime is to create more winter pasture opportunities.
5. 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. We do see some agency offices and employees who drag their feet on making any kind of change, but 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 and where you want to end up being. While some operations go cold turkey and try to make the entire shift in a single year, it may be easier to make the transition over 3 or 4 years. You will take some learning and adjustments to get comfortable with the new approach. Your livestock will also need to adapt to the new management regime.
Most beef herds in the US and Canada are made up of cows that are too big and have too much milking ability to live within the resource capability of the land base. Winter grazing is a lot easier with the proper type of cow on your place. Making the switch in calving season might be as easy as just holding the bulls out for a couple extra months. Changing cow type to a more moderate framed and lower milk producing animal will take quite a bit longer.
The key point is to have a plan for making the transition with a clear target of where you want to go.
Thanks to the On Pasture readers providing financial support.
Jim Gerrish is the author of “Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming” and “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing” and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO’s to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.
Author’s note: Following a series of life events which conspired to prevent me from writing, I’m finally publishing the remaining stories from last year’s trip, as well as more recent writings which have never been released. Thank you for your patience, and enjoy the ride!
There’s a story in David Batstone’s book Not for Sale about a woman who works in rural Thailand to rescue children from the slave trade. It’s a powerful, moving tale as she boldly goes into situations where she is not wanted in order to rescue them, and it left me wondering. You see, almost no one outside of those who have read the book and she knew directly will ever hear about her. Yet how great is the work that she does? Almost all of us would agree that she is having a tremendous impact on the world…
As a first step of my endophyte infected fescue eradication and pasture renovation project, today was the big day of tillage. My husband had purchased a Howard Rotavator 600, which is 10 foot wide sod-cutting and chewing machine and the soil (actually just dirt, it’s in pathetic condition) it’s been through gave it a real workout. Even the tractor couldn’t keep up and i had to sidle over and only take 2′-5′ bite of new sod at times, especially going up hill. This first pass took place on May 17-18, 2017.
One pass tillage next to existing stand of grass. Serious clay content. Methinks some of this worked up harder than if i took down the gravel road!
All in all, i mapped out about 18 acres actually tilled. There are about 25 acres total in the area being renovated, however, because of the steep slopes, several acres are left alone to serve as grassy waterways. I wonder, however, as hard as the ground is, if the tilled portions won’t actually hold and stop more water than the hard pan waterways. Hmmm.
So far, 12 hours spent (1.5 acres per hour) tilling, but not counting time servicing tractor and machine or time spent getting to/from the farm. Tractor uses about 7.7 gallons diesel fuel per hour, so 92.5 gallons there. Second pass should take a bit less time, but we’ll see!
We received a big storm last night with about an inch of rain, so the second pass won’t happen for a few days – depending on weather. Allen will be right behind the second rotatiller pass with the Einbach harrow/seeder and my selected annual grass mix.
With the first pass May 15, 16, and 17 behind me, several very light rain showers, and a few days of drying out, I was ready to get to that second tillage pass and get the annual seeds in the dirt!. Thursday, May 25, 2017, I spent 4 hours with the Howard Rotavator 600 and was pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, the John Deere 4250 tractor worked along nicely at A2 speed vs A1. This effectively increased my speed from 2.1 mph to 2.6 mph. And it showed up in the final tally for sure! The second pass on the same 18 acres, instead of taking 12 hours as before, only rang up 7 1/2 hours. Nice. Admittedly, i could never make a farmer (row cropper); how do those guys run those things for hours on end, daylight to dark, day after day. I was thankful, i could distract myself for a while, at least on the long rows, by chatting (private message) with my son, who was at a cafe in Spain, and texting about soil conditions with a friend who was farming another part of my farm with 120 acres for organic soybean production. I finished up with the second pass on the 26th. It was also seeded on the 26th.
When i was about 2/3 rds completed, Allen came with a huge bag of premixed annual seed to fill the hopper on the Einbock power seeder and harrow. He finished all 18 acres in about 4 hours, counting a couple stoppages due to hoses plugging.
So, time spent so far:
Mixing seeds – 1 hour
Tractor – first pass – 12 hours
Tractor – second pass – 7 1/2 hours
Tractor/Seeding – 4 hours
Using published machinery rental rate
tractor and rotavator – 36 acres times $20/acre = $720.00
tractor and seeder/harrow – 18 acres times $15/acre = $270.00
Seed costs – $31.56 per acre is what i ordered – HOWEVER, i am informed that Allen actually put on about half again as much, so i will multiply that amount by 1.5 for a per acre cost of $47.34. The additional seed will hopefully pay off in increased forage yields. So total seed costs are $$852.12.
Buckwheat 6# @ $ .90/lb
Lespedeza 6# @ $1.00/lb
Pearl Millet 5# @ $1.05/lb
Oats 12# @ $ .28/lb
Cowpeas 6# @ $ .90/lb
Sunflower 5# @ $.45/lb
Red Clover 2# @ $1.95/lb
Total expenses then amount to $1842.12 or $102.34 per acre. That’s a lot and does not include the 2 tons of lime i had applied in April at a cost of $66/acre. It’s tough to say this all has to be recouped in one year or one grazing because the lime will be there for the rest of my life and the tillage will have long term effects in loosening the soil as well as eradicating the toxic endophyte infected fescue. With so many variables, counting the cost, or rather, measuring the increase or lack thereof, in the short run, is very difficult in ranch renovation.
The plan is to have something to graze in 60-75 days. This will depend large part on moisture. We are getting pretty dry now already and need a rain. I will post updates.
By the way, you noticed i’m not including costs associated with photography and blogging. It’s a good way to force me to sit down and keep a log of expenses, time, and results. Hopefully, it will help others as well!
Managing soil, water, and animals properly and privately goes a lot further than politically motivated government regulations written by people who are far removed from soil and weather.
It’s been a rather busy and momentous month, so i’m way behind on reporting on the annuals for grazing and pasture improvement project. Here are photos of growth at 60 days. Turned the cows in on August 1, 2017. Yah willing, my final report will be coming soon. It will take some number crunching and analysis, so will be several days, but i’m ready to put paid to this project.
This is volunteer yellow foxtail as identified by our county extension agent. Despite being a ‘weed’, this forage is exceptionally palatable with excellent nutritional value.
Cows and calves grazing annuals. in the middle of the photo, one can see where i didn’t till because of a small ditch. I was concerned about erosion, but that wasn’t an issue this year. Wishing i had tilled right on through them. Live and learn.
As you can imagine, i was shocked at the lack of grazing days provided by the annuals, but this was my first experience. When i turned them in on the annuals, the cows and calves grazed it all down in four days! In a few days, i was able to turn them back in for a couple more days grazing to boost that yield just a bit. However, at this point, the paddocks will take a very long rest. One thing i did not observe and record in previous years and that is cow condition. At least for this year, these cows were slick and shiny healthy coming off the annuals, but they were that way going in, too. So…..
So, in a nutshell, it cost me a total of $1842.12 to plant 18 acres of annuals for grazing. The purpose of annuals to help rejuvenate the soil microbe community and not necessarily for gain in grazing. Good thing, because it certainly failed in that department. However, as i had written before, the goal is to eradicate toxic fescue and build organic matter. It does look like that has happened at least in short term. It is very hard to measure long term benefits. However, from this point, i’m planning to tack the sail and switch to tilling then no-till a permanent ley (grassland). Whether or not that will work remains to be seen, but i’m keen to find a way to reduce then eliminate any tractor work. I hope to get that scheme underway and perhaps even completed this week. This new scheme, although i do plan to till before planting to permanent ley, will provide a side by side comparison of planting annuals first vs planting permanent pasture once and done. There will be a few spots, too, that won’t be tilled and seeds will be drilled straight into established pasture.
Additional thoughts and observations:
Grazing days – 4 days on 18 acres with 146 cows, 110 calves, and 6 bulls
Labor – setting up and taking down polybraid – two strips – 3 hours.
There is general concern that the annuals need to be stripped off for best utilisation because of the assumption that the cows will destroy too much of the forages. However, my experience is that there was very little waste overall and certainly not enough to justify 3 hours of labor in stripping off small sections. Having said that, i have to quantify that one strip allowed access to only 4 1/2 acres, then 5 acres, then about 8 1/2 acres. Perhaps larger sections would have shown more waste.
If conditions allowed less work setting up and taking down and one had more valuable annuals, then it may be better to take advantage of the benefits of strip grazing.
Post grazing observations:
where the soil was tilled and planted with annuals, the Kansas ragweed did not grow, but giant ragweed was there, though, far from as thick as an untilled/unplanted paddock.
Trampling of annuals was negligible – nearly all had been eaten with the exception of a few sunflower plants.
The pneumatic harrow needs a work over since there were a lot of skips in seed application. Thankfully, the yellow foxtail proliferated thickly in the tilled soil to keep the soil covered. Actually better than the annuals and the cows loved it.
Here is another thought from Burke Teichert, a man whom I’ve yet to meet, who has words of wisdom and experience worth pondering taken from his column “Strategic Planning for the Ranch” in Beef magazine.
“We can all think of things we used to do. We quit doing them because we discovered they were not necessary –often long after they’d ceased to be necessary, if they were ever necessary in the first place. I’ll guarantee most of us are still doing things that don’t need to be done, but cost us time and money.”
Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at email@example.com
What are some things you do that are time wasters? I know i have some, but it seems like they come from poor planning rather than day to day wasting. Questions i ask myself: What am i doing right now? Is it costing me time and money? or is it a good investment for my time and money? If it is a cost, why am I doing it? Sometimes we do things because we enjoy them and that’s okay IF we can afford it. For example, if we have no debt, if we have some serious savings, and if we can easily live within our means. But if we struggle with finances, we need to seriously slash those costs that yield no income. Don’t fall into a trap of justifying anything.