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Planning now to reduce winter feeding costs

Charles Cheyney and Jim Gerrish Published on 01 May 2011
Farm equipment in the fields

What is the average hay-feeding period for cow-calf operations in Minnesota, Missouri and Mississippi? Anyone who was thinking 130 days gets a gold star! With such different climates, why do so many feed so much hay?

Feeding hay is an expensive habit.

Winter feeding accounts for 40-plus percent of the cost of producing a calf, so reducing or eliminating this bad habit can help keep your ranch in the black.

The growing season and the grazing season need not be exactly the same. One way to reduce winter feeding costs is to extend the period cattle harvest their own feed by grazing.

There are four things livestock operators need to successfully extend the grazing season:

  1. Forage in the field or pasture
  2. Control of grazing
  3. Cows that know how to work for a living
  4. Positive attitude

Forage in the field

Having forage in the field for livestock to graze means it needs to be grown and reserved during the growing season.

This forage can come from various sources, but it requires planning now so it is suitable and available. Several options exist.

Some operators may use rested public or private range land. Public agencies may look favorably on switching to fall or winter use.

Rested rangeland can provide five to 40 cow-days per acre of grazing, depending on the resource. Forage quality is always a consideration, but native ranges should have adequate quality for dry pregnant cows.

Crested wheatgrass pastures will probably require some protein supplementation.

Rested native meadow may supply from 50 to 200 cow-days per acre of grazing in the fall and early winter.

Forage quality and quantity are usually higher than rangeland, and these areas are usually on private land, so management is less complicated.

Crop aftermath, particularly alfalfa hay regrowth, can produce a large amount of high-quality fall and winter forage.

The quality is good, providing for pregnant dry cows and growing stock in the early part of the winter.

Some operators leave their entire hay crop standing from 80 to 120 cow-days per acre of grazing, with no machinery expense.

Standing alfalfa shatters when frozen, significantly reducing the quality and quantity of the available forage.

Swathing taller forage crops for fall and winter use can significantly increase quantity and quality of available feed from alfalfa, annual forages and, in some cases, stockpiled pastures.

Perennial pasture can be “stockpiled” during late summer and grazed during the fall and winter. More planning is necessary for good results.

Stockpiling can be done with any perennial pasture, but some species of grasses do a better job than others.

In descending order of preference are: tall fescue, meadow brome, quack and western wheatgrass, orchardgrass, timothy, smooth brome and finally, reed canary grass.

Tall fescue is preferred because it grows later into the fall, has high quality in the fall and resists weathering better.

Pastures with significant alfalfa components will hold their quality better if they are swathed to prevent leaf shatter.

Successful stockpiling requires adequate rest, suitable amounts of nitrogen and adequate late-season water.

Sixty to 75 days of rest will produce the near maximum amount of feed. Shorter periods of rest will provide feed with higher quality.

It takes about one pound of nitrogen to grow 20 pounds of forage. This can come from fertilizer nitrogen, but research shows it can come just as easily and more inexpensively from nitrogen fixation from legumes in the pasture.

Legumes will also increase the quality of the stockpiled forage. The pasture to be stockpiled should be managed to begin the rest period with about three inches of residual from grazing or clipping.

Adequate irrigation or rainfall is required to get maximum production.

Even with nitrogen fertilization, properly managed stockpiled forage can be significantly less expensive than hay and can often support some classes of livestock with higher energy and quality demands.

Annual crops are another source of fall and winter forage. These include cool-season cereals, brassicas, legumes and summer annuals.

Extension and research personnel in the Pacific Northwest have been investigating the parameters for various “non-traditional” species and varieties for this use.

Annual pastures can produce 200-plus cow-days per acre of grazing that can be used in fall and winter.

Experience in the Pahsimeroi Valley of Idaho, at 6,000 feet, found that barley-oats-peas produced 292 cow-days per acre of grazing at $0.39 per head per day, while on the same ranch, cows being fed hay were costing $1.33 per day.

Control of grazing

Besides forage in the field, successful fall and winter graziers control where animals graze.

Strip grazing stockpile, crop residue and windrowed forages can double the number of grazing days, provide a level nutritional plane to the animals and more evenly distribute manure.

After putting up hay all summer, you wouldn’t just open the gate to the stack yard and let the cows eat what they want – so why would you do it with pasture?

Strip grazing of stockpiled forages, using portable electric fencing, is sometimes complicated by the location of water during the winter.

But since there is no regrowth to be concerned with, electric fences can be moved ahead, away from the watering source, permitting the animals to return over the previously grazed area to water.

Efficiency is increased with shorter grazing intervals because animals cannot tread down and spoil feed.

Overall quality is also increased because the animal’s ability to “select the best and defecate on the rest” is reduced.

Anyone with hay residue to feed out can just about double their use by allocating it rather than throwing the gates open. That’s like getting twice as much feed for almost nothing!

Cows that know how to work for a living

Do you work for cows or do cows work for you? There are folks that “work for cows.” Your cows are your employees and need to measure up.

Do your cows get a performance review every year?

Cows moved to a new environment may take up to three years to return to their original level of productivity, but if they were bred and born on your place, they need to be able to find their own food, pick the best quality bite available at the time, get pregnant and deliver a calf every year without fuss, wean a calf every year, stay healthy, stay in the herd long enough to cover overhead and not complain about the weather.

Maybe your cows have some additional job requirements. If a cow is not meeting her job description, perhaps she needs to be someone else’s welfare recipient. This includes the athletic cow that can jump clear over the electric fence.

Positive attitude

There are plenty of operators from Canada to the Mexican border utilizing some or all of these techniques to extend their grazing seasons and reduce their winter feed costs.

They all have different feed resources and situations, but they all share a belief that they can make fall and winter grazing work for them, and they do.

There is an almost unlimited number of excuses why stockpiling and winter grazing will not work, and they almost all come down to attitude.

So start thinking about reducing your winter feed costs right now. You need four things: forage in the field, control of grazing, cows that know how to work and a positive attitude.

If you are a little skeptical, buy a little bit of portable electric fencing and try allocating your hay residue this fall. Find out how many more cow-days of grazing you can get without too much trouble. end mark

Charles Cheyney is a Butte County Extension educator for University of Idaho.
Jim Gerrish is a consultant for American GrazingLands Service in May, Idaho. Contact him at or 208-876-4067.