Smart strategies help cut winter feeding costs
By Allen R. Williams, Ph.D.
Winter feeding is the costliest part of a cattle operation. What cattle eat accounts for an average of 73-75 percent of the total cost of an operation; 70-80 percent of that is the cost of feeding in winter. Therefore, managing the cost of winter feeding becomes a priority for controlling input costs.
In my work with farm and ranch clients throughout the U.S. and Canada, I have found that winter feed costs are a major expenditure everywhere. I reside in Mississippi where I personally raise cattle. When farmers from northern states say, “You can grow grass year round down there and don’t have to worry about winter,” I explain that the average cattle operation in the South feeds as much hay in the winter as the average northern cattle operation. In Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and even Florida, winter hay feeding can start as early as November and extend until late March. In years where the summer and fall are dry, hay feeding can start even earlier. That adds up to an average of 120 – 150 days of winter feeding. Seems ridiculous doesn’t it?
The primary reason for feeding hay that long in the South is because producers do not make adequate winter feeding plans. Many in the cattle business, even in the South, think that winter preparation is centered on putting up as much hay as possible in the summer to feed back to cattle all winter.
Since winter feeding is such an expensive proposition, we need to examine ways to lower the winter feed bill and still keep adequate nutrition in front of our cattle. In light of that, preparing for winter feeding starts long before winter comes.
Cost of Hay
First of all, let’s look at the true cost of hay. In spite of what many think, hay is not a cheap feedstuff. As a matter of fact, hay can often be one of the most expensive feedstuffs we use, especially when you factor in the nutritional value of most hay. Let’s face it, the majority of hay being made out there is average quality at best.
When I was a university faculty member, one of my responsibilities was managing the Integrated Resources Management program. We would collect economic and production data from farms throughout the Southeast and then compare that to data collected from farms throughout other regions in the U.S. Once this data was collected, we would perform a Standardized Performance Analysis. We found that the typical cost per round bale of hay exceeded $70 per bale (for an average 1,000-lb. bale), and often exceeded $80 per bale. Those were direct costs in machinery, equipment, supplies, fuel, repair and maintenance, labor, fertilizer, lime, etc. You have to include not only the cost of harvesting and storing that hay, but also the cost of feeding it back to the cows in the winter. When you consider average feed quality of the hay and spoilage, the price of hay goes even higher.
So, what can we do to better manage for winter feeding and to reduce our input costs directly related to feeding our cattle? It all starts with how we manage our forage supply during the active growing season. In other words, our year-round grazing and forage management has everything to do with what our winter feeding costs will be.
Start with Soil
One of the first statements I make in almost all of my presentations is, “It starts with the soil.” We need to always be in a “soil-building” mindset as that is the foundation which determines how much forage we can grow each year and its nutritive quality. When I work with producers, we always start with detailed soil fertility and biology analysis. You cannot formulate a plan for improvement until you know where you stand. That means collecting soil samples and having a detailed analysis performed of both soil fertility soil biology.
With soil fertility, the analysis should include measures of soil organic matter (OM), pH, cation exchange capacity (CEC), major and minor elements, and base saturations. For soil biology,
I prefer the PLFA test which provides Total Living Microbial Biomass (TLMB): bacteria, fungi, and predator microbial biomass, percentages, and ratios, and stress and community activity ratios. There are a number of good labs out there. I use Waypoint Analytical for soil fertility and Ward Lab for the PLFA tests.
Many of the soils I’ve seen tested are moderately to severely deficient in soil OM and nutrient value. The CEC tends to be low and there are ongoing problems with pH. In addition, the soil biology is often quite poor with low to very low TLMB and poor fungi:bacteria and predator:prey ratios within the soil microorganisms. These are definite handicaps. You cannot grow sufficient quantities of highly nutritive forage in soils that are not performing well.
Once you know where you stand with soil fertility and biology you can begin to formulate a strategy for improvement. This can include the addition of organic fertilizers (manures, composts, fish hydrosolates, raw milk, etc.), soil amendments, foliar feeds, and soil microbials. Remember that none of these are free, and you must know what you are applying, their fertility contribution, how much is needed, and when to apply for best results. There are a lot of products out there—be wary of slick sales people. Some of the products being offered are marginal at best. Some of the promises that are made about these products are too good to be true. Many are way over-priced relative to the actual value you receive.
How do you know which products to trust? Keep in mind, there are no “silver bullets.” Be wary of a product that promises more than what appears logical. Ask for data from field trials with a product, detailed analysis of its nutrient value, a detailed description of the ingredients in the product, and for references you can contact who have used the product. If you have friends or neighbors who have used it, talk to them about their experience with it.
Manage your grazing program during the active growing season to build soil health. We have found that Adaptive High Stock Density (AHSD) grazing management, also referred to as Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing, rapidly builds new soil OM, increases forage biomass or dry matter (DM) production per acre, and enhances the nutritive value of those forages. This management strategy also improves soil water infiltration rates, enhances soil aggregation, and builds soil microbial populations.
With AHSD or AMP grazing, we have been able to build soil OM at a rate between 0.5 and 1.0 percent annually with the most rapid progress coming in the first five years. Figure 1 shows the value of increased soil organic matter related to soil water-holding capacity. This is absolutely critical in determining the total forage biomass you can grow in an active growing season. You cannot grow forages without water, and the more water our soils can effectively hold in the root zone, the better our forages and soil microbes will perform.
In addition to increased water-holding capacity, when we utilize AHSD or AMP grazing we also significantly improve plant brix. Brix is a measure of total nutrient density and sugars in the dissolved solids of a plant. It is best measured using a simple instrument called a refractometer (available online for $80-$130—I like the Atago Master T model). Our research has shown that as you increase plant brix value you significantly improve animal gains and performance as well as plant health and productivity. Improving soil health improves plant brix.
The average pasture in the U.S. has brix values between 2 and 5 percent. That is quite low. Animal performance on low brix pastures and hay/haylage will be marginal at best, especially without additional supplementation. Figure 2 shows what can be expected in terms of cattle average daily gains (ADG) with differing brix values. This directly translates into animal performance on hay as well. High-brix hay results in significantly better animal performance through the winter.
Data from North Dakota shows the difference in productivity between pastures with high microbial activity and those with low microbial activity (high brix vs low brix). Figure 3 shows that fields with high microbial activity can produce between 3-4 times the total forage DM when compared to fields with low microbial activity. In addition, the nutritive value of that forage is greater. This means that cattle have more to eat in the high microbial activity fields, but need fewer bites since it’s more nutritious.
So, grazing high-brix pastures during the active growing season puts your cattle in better body condition in the spring and can also provide for an extended grazing season. Published studies indicate that higher brix forages, when coupled with proper grazing strategies, can add as much as 60-75 more days of grazing each year. High-brix forages can provide grazing up to 30 days earlier in the spring and 30+ days in the late fall. By adding an additional 60+ days of active grazing, winter hay and supplement feeding can be dramatically reduced.
Stockpiling forages during late summer and into fall is one of the most effective ways to reduce winter feeding costs. Stockpiling can be accomplished anywhere in the U.S. and Canada.
We have been able to successfully stockpile both warm and cool season annuals and perennials for winter feeding. The key is to start stockpiling by mid to late August, allowing forages to stockpile into early December before starting to graze. Unless there is significant icing, cattle can burrow down through snow to reach the stockpile.
Another key to effective stockpile utilization is to tightly control access. I have found that it is best to use strip grazing techniques with stockpiled forages rather than the normal summer rotation pattern. With strip grazing, you would set up an electrified polywire along one side of a stockpiled field and allow cattle enough access for only one day at a time. The next day, move the polywire forward to allow cattle access to the next strip. This prevents excess trample and stockpile loss. It also controls consumption rates.
We have stockpiled fescue, Bermudagrass, mixed native pastures, warm season annual cocktails and cool season annual cocktail mixes. All have been effective and productive when managed properly. North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown has been able to use stockpile grazing to significantly extend winter grazing and reduce hay feeding.
Stockpile grazing saves real money since: 1) you’re grazing instead of hauling hay to cattle; 2) most properly stockpiled forage is higher in feed value than hay; 3) it requires less labor, fuel, equipment, etc.; 4) it reduces the volume of hay, haylage, and other feed supplements that must be fed during the winter months. If you bdo not have enough acres available to stockpile a pasture or two for winter grazing, then you are overstocked and need to reduce cattle numbers.
In addition to stockpiled forages, producers can take advantage of row crop residue for winter grazing. By grazing the residue you will not only cut hay feeding costs and time, but will also add valuable nutrients to the soil for next year’s crop through the livestock impact.
If you do not grow row crops, talk with neighbors to see if they are willing to allow your cattle to graze their crop residue—the livestock impact (manure, urine, hoof impact) will benefit their next crop. You have to be willing to provide temporary fencing and water, placing and removing cattle on the residue on the neighbor’s schedule. The Pasture Project of the Wallace Center and their partners have been quite successful at matching grazers with farmers for this purpose.
When you must supplement with stored forages such as hay, use it as an opportunity to contribute to the building of new soil OM through winter bale grazing. Bale grazing has been used quite successfully in Canada and northern states to rapidly build new soil organic matter and significantly increase summer forage biomass or DM production.
Data collected from producers in New York by Cornell University Extension shows that you can build between 0.5 and 0.8 percent new organic matter in a single winter season of bale grazing.
Bale grazing is quite easy to manage. You can place bales in the fall in the areas you intend to graze so that all bales are in place ahead of winter weather. Place bales in a checkerboard fashion about 30 feet apart. Just as with winter stockpile grazing, control access to the bales throughout the winter by using strip grazing techniques and electrified polywire. (See photos on page 1.) Allow cattle access only to the number of bales needed for each day. If you have to be gone a day or two, then simply allow access to enough hay to last the number of days you will be gone.
Bale grazing works very well in northern states where the ground is frozen for much of the winter. We have successfully used bale grazing in the Southeast, but our wet and muddy conditions during the winter mean we have to strategically place bales where ground is well-drained and sloped.
Test Stored Forage
Finally, when you must feed hay, hayleage, and baleage, make sure that you have tested each batch for nutritive value. You need to know what you are feeding so that you can make sure you are meeting the nutritional needs of your cattle through the winter months. Your local Extension Service or NRCS personnel can assist you with this. Most land grant universities offer hay sample analysis for constituents in their respective states.
I recommend using Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) rather than Relative Feed Value (RFV) for a more accurate assessment of hay feed value. RFV was primarily developed for alfalfa forages and is not very reliable for predicting cattle performance on grass-based rations. RFV is calculated from Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF). ADF is an estimate of digestible dry matter (DDM) content and NDF is an estimate of potential dry matter intake (DMI) of the forage. The problem with RFV is that you can have different hay crops that have the same RFV and cows will perform well on one and not the other.
RFQ was developed as a replacement for RFV for forages. It provides a better index of how a forage (hay) will perform in an animal’s diet. One of the primary differences between RFQ and RFV is that TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) replaces DDM in the RFQ index calculation. Currently, RFQ is available only on hay, mixed hay, and haylage. A test for corn silage will soon be available.
It is important to note that there are several factors that can affect digestible fiber in hay and haylage: region of the country, elevation, and temperature at cutting. Greater leaf material in the hay or haylage often results in a higher RFQ. However, heat damage tends to lower RFQ.
In summary, winter feeding preparation starts during the active growing season and involves deliberate planning for the harvesting of high quality hay and haylage, stockpiling of forages for winter grazing, and bale grazing. The foundation for successful summer and winter nutrition starts with soil health. Strategies that build soil health will increase plant brix, expand the active grazing season, and produce higher quality hay and haylage.
Allen Williams is a consultant with Grass Fed Insights, LLC., and a sixth-generation family farmer who raises grass-fed beef on his farm in Mississippi.
From the September | October 2015 Issue