Grazing Expert: Skip the Hay, Save the Money

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

WYTHEVILLE, Va. — Making hay is the biggest expense a livestock producer has, a leader in year-round grazing management told Virginia farmers last week.

Jim Gerrish of American GrazingLands Services was the featured speaker at the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council’s winter forage conferences, held at four locations throughout the state.

Gerrish, known for his work as a forage researcher at the University of Missouri, has moved to higher ground and has been raising cattle in Idaho for the past 10 years. He has been successful there with year-round grazing, even though it is a very different climate from Missouri, which he termed “the Garden of Eden of grazing.”

VFGC, in conjunction with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS), conducts the conferences every winter. In addition to Wytheville, they were held this year in Front Royal, Weyers Cave and Blackstone.

Robert Shoemaker, VFGC president, told the more than 190 people attending the Wytheville conference that this southwest Virginia meeting is always one of the strongest in both attendance and participation.

Gerrish asked why people feed hay when they could be letting their animals graze. He said it is just as easy to graze as it is to feed hay.

He told the audience the some people have sold their haying equipment and are doing just that with good results.

“We feed hay to the extent we can make hay,” Gerrish said. “If we make hay, we feed it.”

When hay making was done by hand 170 years ago it was hard labor, he said. As better haying equipment was invented it became easier and easier, until it became a one-person operation in the 1980s.

The ability to make hay easier did something else, however; it continually increased the costs of feeding livestock, making that the single largest cost of a livestock operation.

“Most farmers have no idea what it costs to produce a ton of hay,” he told his audiences of mostly cattle farmers. “Weaning weight has very little meaning relative to profit. The cost of hay does.”

Since 1974, when feeder cattle broke records at $54 per hundredweight, costs have continued to grow. Back then, it took 7,800 pounds of beef to pay for a $4,200 baler, Gerrish said. With feeder cattle selling at $128 per hundredweight last year, it took 31,250 pounds of beef to pay for a $40,000 baler. He said other costs are continuing to rise, as well.

Gerrish said he thinks of farming as a business and a cow as a farm employee. Her job description is as follows:

Find your own grub.

Find the best bite you can find.

Deliver a live calf every 12 months by yourself.

Gerrish said cows can’t do fencing. Building infrastructure is the farmer’s job.

“The role of a manager is to create an environment where your employees (cows) can be the best they can be,” he said.

In his consulting business, Gerrish said, he looks at financial records, finding again and again that winter feed costs are the highest.

As far as labor, he asked how many cows one person can take care of. His answers ranged from one per 100 cows to 1 per 800 to 1,000 in the West and 1,500 to 3,000 in Australia.

He advocated eliminating a cow that can’t deliver a calf by itself.

Year-round grazing does not happen by accident, Gerrish said. It takes planning.

Planning for 2014 needs to start now, he said, urging farmers to look at all kinds of grasses, including cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, broom sage, a warm-season native grass many consider a weed, and other native plants.

Gerrish advised farmers to build a calendar of forage supplies with a pasture inventory. He said he does an inventory every two weeks, measuring the height. As a farmer gets practice in doing this, he or she becomes able to estimate the yield available by looking at the height.

“You can get to the point where you can say the number of cow days are available with cows eating 30 pounds of forage per day,” he said.

“The last inventory of the growing season tells you what you have to work with for the winter,” he said, noting end of growing seasons differ.

He said knowing the stocking rate and carrying capacity of your forage will allow a farmer to make money year after year.

“Stock the ranch to your winter grazing capacity, not summer grazing capacity,” he said.

This allows for some hay making or custom feeding in flush grass months.

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