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Grazing Through the Hard Times

February 8, 2014
By: Wyatt Bechtel, Dairy Today google + 
Blair Cattle Moving
A short duration grazing program improved range conditions at the Blair Brothers Angus Ranch, in Sturgis, S.D.   

Managing forage and water goes a long way toward profitability

Blizzards, drought, fire and flooding are just a few of the things that cattle producers in the West Central Plains have to manage around. Besides making sure that their cattle can endure the sometimes harsh conditions of this area, ranchers must also sustain the grassland for continued years of grazing.

This past December at the bien­nial Range Beef Cow Symposium in Rapid City, S.D., producers James Sewell of Wyoming, Chip Ramsay of Nebraska and Ed Blair of South Dakota spoke about their grazing programs and how they relate to managing their ranch finances.

Chip Ramsay

Chip Ramsay

In perspective. Chip Ramsay manages the Rex Ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska near Hyannis. Like the many producers, Ramsay has been battling the drought.

"Isn’t it funny what will put you in perspective? We’re actually elated with the amount of grass we have on our ranch, and we’re still in a severe drought," Ramsay says. "There is nothing like managing through exceptional drought to make you appreciate a little something better."

The Rex Ranch enhances land resour­ces by implementing written, disciplined grazing plans. As they execute these grazing plans, there is a specific focus put on giving the ground enough recovery time so it won’t be overgrazed.

Ramsay says the management-intensive grazing has allowed the ranch to stock acres a little more heavily. Typical annual stocking rates on the ranch are approximately 1,000-lb. worth of cattle to every 13.5 acres. "If we manage the goose correctly, we’ll get a few more eggs. Capacity is important, but using that capacity to its fullest extent is everything in managing cost," he says.

The grazing operation is split into 80% cows and 20% yearlings.

"We run our cattle in large herds consisting of 600 to 950 head," Ramsay says. "We rotate every three to seven days in order to have 100 days of rest on that pasture before we come back to it, but the meadows are less than that."

During the winter, cows are fed about 500 lb. of hay. "That’s what we average normally. That’s a wonderful, wonderful system until you don’t grow any grass during the summer. Then you’ve got to pay the piper, which is what we did in 2013," Ramsay explains.

Managing for the unexpected is always difficult, and having to deal with a once-in-a-lifetime drought is certainly unexpected. "That is a heart-wrenching experience, trying to figure out what to do with all of those cows without having any grass," he says.

Last year, Ramsay sent as many cows as he could out to cornstalks. For the winter, a lot of cows went to a feedyard and were fed byproducts and ground up cornstalks with a 30% distillers’ blend. It was costly to move those cattle off of their typical home pastures, he says. His variable costs, $65 per cow in a normal year, increased to $365 per cow this past year.

"It was a horrendous experience for us to ship those cows off the ranch. We may be more conservative in the future with our feed inventory, but we won’t go to that point. We won’t manage for a 100-year drought because it is too costly over the long run, so it will burn us again if it happens next year," Ramsay says.

To help give the cows a little bit of a break during the winter, the Rex Ranch has been moving the herd’s calving date from February to late spring. From 1998 to 2004, cows calved in March or April, then up until 2009, cows were calving from April to May. The final jump in 2010 took calving into May and June.

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FEATURED IN: Beef Today - February 2014

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