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.
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.
By doing this, the cow cycle matches the range nutrient cycle, helping reduce supplementation costs while saving the ranch a significant amount in feed and labor during the winter. However, Ramsay cautions that producers might want to consider protein supplementation during a late summer breeding season.
"We went to May calving, and it is interesting—our older cows bred up to pretty close to what they had been," Ramsay said. "They managed that learning curve moving 30 days back, but our 2-year-olds killed us. It made us sick to have all those young cows open."
The next year, cows received 1⁄4 lb. of supplement per day for about 30 days, and pregnancy rate increased 15%. This proved that supplementing too little is like trying to squeeze something out of nothing, and it can cost you a lot of money, Ramsay said.
Make less hay. For James Sewell, manager of TA Ranch in Saratoga, Wyo., rain is typically in short supply with only 9" on average falling in the rain gauge each year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of water.
"One thing that is really unique to us is the vast majority of our forage comes off of irrigated meadows," Sewell says, "either from the North Platte River or a little tributary called Pass Creek. We’ve got a lot of flood-irrigated ground, so if we don’t get out there and irrigate, we don’t grow feed."
Sewell is relatively new to the TA Ranch, having just stepped in as manager about a year and a half ago. For the 34 years prior to Sewell managing the operation, the focus was on making hay to feed the commercial cows.
The only problem with the intensive haying on the meadows is that it’s nearly year-round work. March and April are spent dragging meadows, and fields are flood irrigated from April to June. Sometimes ice has to be chopped to do this, and water occasionally runs out early in the season. July through September is spent putting up hay. By November, it is time to start feeding.
"We’d feed 2.5 tons per cow from November through May," Sewell said. "That only left us October that we weren’t doing something with hay. We still had to feed the replacement heifers and the calves, and we were picking up the hay in the fields. I didn’t think it was much of a vacation."
Something had to change, which is why Sewell was hired to manage the ranch. "I had an advantage in the situation because I was coming onto the ranch with fresh eyes," Sewell said. "Some of us don’t have that perspective if you’ve grown up on the ranch your whole life—we tend to think it is what it is."
Sewell reduced hay acres, sold most of the equipment that wasn’t needed, and looked for custom haying crews to reduce employees’ workload. Cattle now graze some of the meadows.
"We’re still putting up quite a bit of hay. We cut acres in half in one year, and we’ll probably cut it in half again next year," Sewell says.
However, Sewell doesn’t want go through some of the same headaches that others have seen with a drop in pregnancy rate with young cows. The reduction in hay feeding will be more gradual moving forward, and supplementation will also be a part of the program.
Flash grazing. Sturgis, S.D., hosts the world’s largest motorcycle rally, but it is also home to Blair Brothers Angus Ranch. Ed Blair has made ranching a family affair by partnering with his brother, son and nephew on the operation.
One of the most important facets of the Blairs’ ranch is a short duration grazing program.
"We were originally doing it with just our replacement heifers, and we did that probably for about 10 years," Blair says.
The range condition started to improve on those pastures where the heifers were grazing, and stocking rates were able to increase, as well. This led Blair to reconsider what he would do with the cowherd.
"After about 10 years on the heifers, then we went to the cows," Blair said. "We used to put them in groups, and we would have 100 over here or 200 over there. Then we went to running them all in one herd."
This new focus on grazing allowed the Blairs’ cattle to better consume the grass before breeding. The ranch uses a total AI protocol for all females.
"In doing that, our goal is to get through every pasture before we start AI-ing," Blair says. "So depending on the year, we’ve got three to four weeks that we’ll move those cows every two to three days."
Flash grazing allows for at least a month’s worth of grazing during the spring. The grass isn’t really negatively impacted because there is still a lot of moisture available, and the grass is rapidly growing.
Blair adds, "The thing that it does for you with that flash grazing is you’ll keep the plants vegetating longer."
Also added into the equation of the short duration grazing is water management. For the Blairs’ program to be successful, there has to be access to drinking water on much of the ranch.
Blair has spent the past 25 years digging pipeline, and he is not done yet. His end goal is to have a tank on every quarter-section on the property.
"You can manage cattle easier with water than you can with fence," Blair says. "I can grow grass on 6" of rain if I’ve got water."
Because the average rainfall for Blair’s area is only 14", he prefers putting in stock tanks, which are more productive than digging ponds that evaporate and lose water. The piped-in water system comes from a centralized well, with additional hookups to rural water systems located on the north and south ends of the ranch.
"I ran out of water once, and I’m never going to run out again," Blair says.
To contact Wyatt Bechtel, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.