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The Cost Of Feeding

There are two main costs to wintering cows, the feed and the cost of putting out the feed. There is quite a bit of awareness about the cost of feed. Most of us are at least aware of the term least-cost ration. Feedlots do an excellent job in this area. In the cow-calf sector there may be some room for improvement.

So let s look at the cost of feeding the feed. I didn t want to use the term yardage as that includes more than just the cost of feeding. For this discussion we have the feed and need to get it to the cows. How can we do this economically?

The most economical way to feed that I am aware of is to leave the bales where they are produced. When you bale graze in this manner the cost of feeding is zero. A similar case can be made when purchased feed is unloaded where it will be bale grazed. Both these scenarios have a zero cost for putting out the feed. Is there any way to improve on this?

Now let s look at some scenarios where the feed is handled again and see what happens to the cost. I will use some figures from our place. They are real to me but what really matters is the numbers for your place.

We have areas where we want to bale graze that are not accessible to bale trucks. Our tractor and wagon can move 19 bales per trip. This takes about one hour. We don t have real good numbers but estimate that it costs $50 per hour to operate our equipment. Using a bale weight of 1,300 pounds each trip with 19 bales puts out 24,700 pounds of feed (1,300 x 19). We like to feed 35 pounds per head per day (3% of body weight on a 1,200 pound cow). The 24,700 pounds provides 705 cow days of feed (24,700 lb./35). The cost of feeding this feed is $.07 per cow per day ($50/705).

We also feed with a deck truck. We estimate $50 per hour for the truck. When the feed is close to the cows we can feed four bales per hour. Feeding four bales weighing 1,300 pounds each allows us to feed 5,200 pounds of feed per hour (1,300 x 4). Using our 35 pounds of feed per head gives us 148 cow days of feed (5,200/35). The cost of feeding the feed is $.34 per cow per day ($50/148).

When the cows and feed are not close together we can only feed two bales per hour. Feeding two bales weighing 1,300 pounds each allows us to feed 2,600 pounds of feed per hour (1,300 x 2). That gives us 74 cow days of feed (2,600/35) and a cost of feeding of $.68 per head per day ($50/74).

These numbers show that feeding with a deck truck can cost five to 10 times as much as feeding by bale grazing. It is important to remember these are my figures.

Feeding in a pen also adds corral cleaning to the cost of feeding. I won t put any numbers down for this as I have no personal experience. Please use your own numbers.

Bale grazing is the most economical way there is to feed cows. Now let s look at some of the common excuses for not bale grazing. The most common is that bale grazing wastes too much feed. Here are three points you might consider regarding wasted feed.

1. The amount of feed per head is largely determined by the owner of the cattle, not the feeding system. If you like your cows hog fat, your feed cost per head will be high. If you like your cows on the lean side they will be low.

2. There is no waste in nature. Every ounce of residual feed left on the land improves your land and is an investment in biological capital. This investment will give you a positive return in the future. We have places where we wintered cattle 50 years ago. The improvement to the land is still obvious today. It is true that any extra feed must be cash flowed but extra feed cannot be wasted.

3. Looking back at our example we see bale grazing cost $.07 per head per day and feeding with a bale truck cost 34 and 68 cents per day. The difference is 27 and 61 cents per day. At our feeding rate of 35 pounds we could buy nine or 20 pounds of extra feed (at three cents per pound) with the money saved by bale grazing. Nine pounds is a 25 per cent increase in feed purchased (9/35). Twenty pounds is a 57 per cent increase in feed purchased (20/35). Spending money on feeding (equipment, repairs and fuel) doesn t produce anything. Buying extra feed with the same money (if you felt it was necessary) would result in a huge investment in biological capital. Which option makes more sense?

4. Bale grazing saves 27 or 61 cents per head per day in the our example. At 27 cents we save $40 per head in a 150-day feeding period (. 27 x 150) or $91 per head at 61 cents per day.

I hope you will seriously consider these ideas. Don t just say oh my costs aren t that high. Figure out your costs. They are the only costs that matter. If you have exceptionally low equipment costs both your bale grazing and feeding may be way cheaper than mine. The important thing is that the difference will still favour the bale grazing.

We have now enjoyed the benefits of bale grazing for 23 years and it is most rewarding to see the cumulative results. I encourage you to talk to a neighbour who is bale grazing. There are people doing it in all areas of the country. Perhaps it will work for you as it has for so many others. The sooner you start the sooner you will enjoy the benefits. I wish you success in making positive change.

Happy trails.

DonCampbellrancheswithhisfamilyatMeadowLake,Sask.,andteachesHolisticManagementcourses.Hecanbereachedat306-236-6088or [email protected]

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Don Campbell

Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask., 
and teaches Holistic Management courses.

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