It was a late, cool (cold) spring locally and I think most areas in Western Canada have had similar weather. I travelled quite a bit this spring and became very aware of the great differences in when people start to graze their animals. Some producers turn out in April or early May. They may still be supplemental feeding but they are not on full feed. Usually these producers are not feeding at all by early May. Other producers continue to be on full feed until late May or possibly even into June.
The question arises, why is there such a variation in management? And which system is likely to produce the most profit? There is no one best answer but I would like to give you some ideas to think about so that you arrive at your own best answer.
I define stockpiled grass as grass that was produced in the previous grazing season. It was not grazed but left over the winter to be grazed the following spring. (the grass could also be used for late fall or early winter grazing) Stockpiled grass will require some grazing management. The pastures to be stockpiled would likely be grazed sometime between June 15 and July 15. The grass is then left to grow until a killing frost. The date of grazing will affect the volume of grass stockpiled. The early grazed ones will generally have a large volume of grass and the volume will decrease in the later grazed pastures.
The benefits of stockpiled grass are:
1. Requires some grazing management. (Better management is a plus.)
2. Holds the winter snow and increases the moisture.
3. There will be less frost in the ground.
4. A higher percentage of snow melt and early rains infiltrates.
5. There is less moisture loss due to evaporation.
6. Grass growth is earlier and faster. (New growth is protected.)
7. Clean healthy place for calving.
8. Shortens the winter feeding period.
Let’s look at the benefit of grazing management. It is not that difficult to double your grass production over a five-to 10-year period. Is there any other way to make your place more profitable and sustainable? Remember that management pays more than working.
Numbers 2 to 5 all deal with the water cycle. Rainfall is the limiting factor for growth in most areas. Any thing you can do to increase the utilization of the rain you receive will be beneficial.
Number 6 helps reduce the damage of spring frosts. In effect it lengthens the growing season.
Number 7 will likely be more beneficial if you are calving in sync with nature and have moderate-sized, easy-fleshing cows. Again the question arises: Am I in a production mode (early calving, big cows) or a profit mode? I suggest that the only thing that matters is profit.
Let’s look at the benefit of shortening the winter feeding period. For most of us winter feed is the largest cost in maintaining our cows. Anything we can do to reduce this cost should be beneficial. It is quite common to feed from Nov. 1 to May 20 (200 days). If we shorten this by stockpiling grass and stop feeding on May 1 what will happen. I will give you an example for demonstration purposes. Don’t use my numbers, plug your costs into the formulas. If you are feeding 40 pounds of hay per head per day and hay costs .03 cents per pound the cost per head per day is $1.20 (40 lb. X .03). We must also add in the cost of delivering the feed. Again everyone will have their own numbers. Let’s say it costs $50 per hour to run your tractor and you can feed 100 head in an hour. This works out to 50 cents per head per day (100 X .50).
Total cost of feeding is now $1.70 per head per day. ($1.20 + .50) If we reduce the days on feed by 20 days our savings will be $34 per head ($1.70 X 20). If we use a 500-pound calf our saving is almost the same as raising the price of the calf .07 cents per pound. (500 x .07 = $35) Would this kind of saving help you be more profitable?
It is human nature to want to defend the status quo. I urge you to look at this realistically. Use your own numbers but be sure you account for all the costs. I am reminded of a quote from an old rancher. “Most people who own a baler and a tractor have no idea what it costs to operate them.” If you are using a bale processor or a feed wagon don’t forget that they cost money to buy and maintain.
The first and most profitable way to have stockpiled forage is to use planned grazing to increase your grass production. If you do this there is no added cost to the extra forage and all the savings become profit.
If you are doing a good job of grazing and still have no stockpiled forage you might consider reducing your stocking rate. Run two scenarios one with more cows and a long feeding period and one with fewer cows and a shorter feeding period. Which one is most beneficial to you?
I hope you are blest with adequate rain and a great growing season.
Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask. He can be reached at 306-236-6088