RUMINATE ON THIS… Post 1: Winter Grazing by Meagan Lannan

“There are some things we need to start talking about...”

Roger Indreland, rancher Big Timber, MT

Pondering some different tactics to make a positive impact on your business? Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE) has created this discussion to highlight our members who are doing just that.

Winter feeding might be a good place to start improving profitability since substitute feed (spreading baled hay) is often the largest input on most conventional ranching operations. For this post, we will feature Roger Indreland of Indreland Angus, located north of Big Timber, and Pete Lannan of Barney Creek Livestock, located south of Livingston.

Run the Numbers

Winter feed is expensive. Many operations fire up the tractor or pickup daily to feed. Every day you operate a piece of equipment, you need to include labor, fuel, repairs, and depreciation in accounting for expenditures. You raised the hay crop, so it belongs to the ranch, correct? If your cattle enterprise can’t pay for this commodity, then maybe you should sell it for a fair market price. Take an honest look at your feeding system and run the numbers. Once you have a good idea of where you are sitting with winter feeding costs, consider alternatives.

Field Notes

WSE caught up with Roger Indreland to discuss winter feeding. Fifteen years ago, he realized that equipment costs were one of the biggest stumbling blocks, specifically, “…the cost of hay in terms of delivery, machine maintenance, and labor.” Roger noted that “ the winter, equipment complications (are inevitable) when needing to start something every day.” So over the next several years, he made gradual adjustments to his winter feed regime. As he simultaneously adapted his genetics toward a lower maintenance animal, his winter feeding went from two tons of hay over a continuous 120-day winter period to less than half a ton scattered as needed over those same winter months. He reduced his equipment use and tried winter grazing alternatives on stockpiled feed reserves. Roger notes that if you have “welfare cows, you will have some fallout.”  In other words, cows need to be adapted to this type of system over a period of time.

Choosing a calving season that fits with this strategy is also important (more on that in following posts). When using lower quality forages, be prepared to supplement protein. Roger keeps enough supplemental feed on hand to weather whatever Mother Nature might deal them in the form of severe winter conditions.

The winter of 2017-2018 in the Sweetgrass and Park Counties is a good example. Pete Lannan suggests not pushing livestock too hard early in winter and keeping a close eye on body condition. He believes it is far easier to maintain body condition on cattle early than trying to put condition back on later. He suggests that stockpiled feed will be available as long as deep, crusted snow doesn’t prevent access, albeit at a lower quality and quantity. Over the winter months of 2018, Pete figures he saved one ton of hay per cow. Running the numbers shows that’s an additional $130-$150 profit per cow over the previous year.

dead grass.JPG
green grass - Dec.JPG
Obrecht Feb forage - Turner MT.jpg

QUALITY WINTER GRAZING MATERIAL:  From the pickup window, you might suspect that dormant forage has very little potential for quality feed for your cows. A closer look might surprise you with more green than you would expect! (Left-windshield view, Right-a closer look reveals a great mix of forage from the cow's view)  Photos taken on the Indreland Ranch on Jan. 23, 2019. Another forage quality photo from early February in Turner, MT.

Alternatives to Consider

Here are some methods that can decrease your winter substitute feeding program, increase profits, and benefit your bottom line.

  1. Stockpiling is when you defer hay/pasture fields for use during the dormant season. One of the most efficient ways to utilize this stockpiled forage can be strip grazing, although strategies vary depending on your situation.

  2. Strip grazing is allocating standing forage for a set amount of time: for example, allowing one herd of cows enough pasture to last them one day. Jim Gerrish details this practice in his book Kick the Hay Habit. This is a simple way for a producer to stretch their dormant pastures longer. Utilizing strip grazing, even with regrowth on hay meadows, can stretch grazing days by as much as two times.

  3. Swath grazing amounts to leaving swaths of standing forage in the field, then grazing it during the dormant season. This practice saves baling, hauling, and handling costs. Additionally, cutting the crop preserves forage quality while distributing nutrients over a greater area than conventional feeding. This practice has been used in Western Canada for many years. There are even producers in California who utilize swath grazing during their drought season.

  4. Bale grazing is setting out hay ahead of feeding and regulating access to bales based on need. This can be done once in the season or weekly, depending on the situation. Feed can be allocated daily, weekly, or anywhere in between. Typically, electric fencing is used to limit access to hay. Again, producers in Western Canada have been using this strategy for years. There are many soil health benefits that have been attributed to bale grazing, including significant increases in organic matter as well as concentrated animal herd impacts that help break down plant litter and soil crust.  

Additional Resources:   (Strip Grazing)  (Winter Grazing-A Better Way to Feed)

Miranda BlyComment