One thing that I have learned over the years is that every year is different on the farm. As managers, we need to be flexible and have the ability to adapt to the changes in our lives. One change that I am looking at this fall is supplementation with my bale grazing.
First off, as a review, bale grazing is a method of feeding harvested feed but we use a grazing mentality. It reduces the labour and equipment costs associated with traditional winter feeding. The key to bale grazing is to have the hay delivered right to the pasture. The more times we handle bales, the more costly it is. We spread the bales out across a paddock like a checkerboard and remove all the twines in the fall. A long rectangular paddock is best suited for bale grazing. To feed out these bales, we now play leapfrog with a couple of electric fences all the way down the field. I prefer a four-day graze period. This means I allow the herd into four days worth of feed at a time. I feel the balance between labour, animal nutrition and feed waste is optimal. (Of course, this is not really waste. ) On the first two days, they eat pretty well, and yes, on the last day, they have to work pretty hard to get a decent meal. You have to be tough and force them to clean up.
This is where my dilemma comes into play this year. I have a herd of bred heifers to bale graze. They are still growing and they have a baby in their tummy. I will need to meet their nutritional requirements. With the poorer-quality hay that I am predicting this year, how do I supplement these heifers to meet their requirements and still keep the costs economical? With all the moisture we had this year, a lot of the hay produced this season will either be rained on a few times, overmature or simply not have the nutrients in it because of the fast growth. Whatever the case, with poor-quality hay, I will have to supplement my bred heifers. The majority of the ration can still be fed with bale grazing on my four-day graze period. Moving the fence takes me about one hour a week. Let s look at a couple of ways I have supplemented.
On day four, I could take out my bale truck and unroll a bale or two of high-quality feed. This will give each animal a few extra pounds of good hay on the cleanup day. The amount of supplement will of course need to be worked into the overall ration. Depending on your operation, this could also be done by feeding silage as the supplement as well. The key to this system is that you are still only starting a piece of equipment once every four days to supplement.
For me, to feed 350 bred heifers, unrolling two 1,400-pound alfalfa bales would give an extra eight pounds per head. If I am aiming to feed 28 pounds per head per day, I would feed 104 pounds with the wire and supplement the remaining eight pounds on day four. If it takes me a half-hour of labour every four days at a labour rate of $65/hr., I would add approximately 4.6 cents/head/day to my yardage costs. (I have stated before that my bale-grazing yardage is usually around 15 cents/head/day.) This would bump it up to about 20 cents/head/day. If our poor-quality hay costs three cents per pound delivered and our good-quality hay costs four cents per pound delivered, our total cost of feed will be 86 cents. Adding our yardage cost of around 15 cents makes it $1.06 per head per day.
I also have supplemented in the past with pellets. I used a non-grain-base pellet but that is because I prefer a grass-fed system. If I can purchase a screenings pellet for let s say $175 per tonne& let s see what our total costs add up to.
If I supplement pellets with five pounds per head on day two and day four of my bale grazing, that might give me the boost in nutrition I am after. Now you can feed the pellets however you want but with 350 head, that is a lot of five-gallon pails to put into a feed bunk.
Quite a few years ago I saw a pellet feeder that goes behind a bale truck that allowed you to roll out your supplementation on the ground with your bale truck. It did not take me long to figure out a cheaper way to make one. I use a wide flotation tire that I pick up with my truck simply by putting a piece of pipe through the middle. I cut a hole in the tread which allows about a five-gallon pail worth of pellets to dump on the ground with every rotation. My only cost on this tire was the cost of the replacement chain on my chainsaw. I fill it up, and lift it up onto the truck deck to take it out to the field. The tire I use will hold about 750 pounds of pellets without any modifications. If you mount the pipe and close in the sides, it will hold much more than that. When I feed the pellets, I learned quickly to drive past the herd, turn around and roll out the feed coming back into the herd. This allows the slowpokes to still get an adequate amount of pellets. If you try it you will see why. It is amazing at how well they clean up the pellets. The piles end up about 20 feet apart and the animals stand around it in a circle and there is very little waste.
Again, if this takes me an extra half-hour each time I supplement, at $65 per hour, this adds approximately 4.6 cents/head/day to my yardage costs each time I supplement. Let s say you needed to feed pellets every second day to supplement your ration. Add 9.2 cents/head/day. Your overall feed cost here might be 75 cents for hay (25 lb./head/day at 3.0 cents/lb.), 20 cents for the pellets and about 25 cents for yardage. This puts me at about $1.20 per head per day. Does this work in your gross margin?
Now these are just random scenarios I used for my calculations and all of these rations are of course subject to the quality of your hay. Put in your own numbers and see what you can come up with. I would highly recommend feed testing your hay this year and developing a ration to fill the nutritional requirements of whatever class of livestock you are feeding. But do not forget about the labour and equipment costs associated with the feeding method you choose. You need to pay yourself and cover your fuel, repairs, depreciation and your opportunity costs. Ranching is a business! Make sure you treat it like one.