Throughout most of the winter and early spring I entertain a variety of phone calls requesting the use of some of my ranches fallow fields to make hay. If there is one thing that a ruminant grower can’t stand, it’s to see fallow fields and I can sympathize with that notion. At the front of my property, next to the road, there are two 20-acre parcels that were taken out of row cropping systems and allowed to revert back to…well back to weeds. I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that a monocrop system is removed it will ultimately produce another monocrop system. From corn and soy to mullein and goldenrod, my cattle have a difficult time finding any palatable and productive forage in this area of the farm, but converting fallow fields to productive areas is for another article. The focus of this piece is to examine why these producers are out cruising around looking for more hay land.
In the spring and winter, many farmers are actively out scouting for areas to grow more forage and are willing to sign contracts and make required amendments to achieve this goal but in my personal opinion they are going about their expansion all wrong. What if I told you there was an easier way to cut your feed costs?
Working ground, bailing forage, and transporting hay require massive inputs of time and money. Through an in depth financial analysis we have found that most ranchers are losing money by selling their hay and baleage for less than it cost to actually make it and when you tack on the extra cost of fertilizer and transportation the numbers quickly become even more unfavorable.
The way to combat this is to simply rely less on stored forages. Any producer who is primarily feeding grass should be working with what they already have to both improve the quality of their sward and to lengthen their grazing season. Instead of sitting on the tractor and moving hay around all summer, why not work on your grazing plan or figure out which pastures to stockpile for late fall and early winter feeding?
The way to lessen your reliance on stored forages and lower your feed costs is to extend your grazing season. This extended season is directly correlated to less days of feeding stored forages, less time and money spent on harvesting, and overall improved animal health.
Look at your animals-they were born to eat! Ruminants have developed specialized cutting tools to harvest grasses, four wheel drive capabilities to get into places impossible for mowers, and efficient fermentation tanks to break down plants into usable food. Why would we handicap them and ourselves by thinking that we could do a better job of feeding then they could themselves?
My point is simple. Review your grazing plan and start rotating animals to allow your pastures to rest and grow back strong. Let the cow be the cow that it is and use its natural ability to harvest standing feed that you put aside during the productive season. By developing your pastures to be more productive, by selectively harvesting and resting areas, most growers could double the amount of forage that they have on their property without having to look for additional acreage to manage.
These techniques are not new, nor are they simple. Developing your grazier’s eye takes a lot of time and observation. The best way for you to begin to think about these systems is to get together with other like-minded individuals and to tour other ranches that are utilizing this approach. Of course if you think you would benefit from a more structured course feel free to email me and sign up for our Beginning Rotational Grazing Clinic in July.