How to get the most from your land and save some cash in the process

Written by Darian Livingstone; Ceres Industries

As the days begin to shorten and the nights begin to cool, it’s a telltale sign that summer is starting to wind down. Although many producers in the area still have a few months of grass grazing ahead of them, strategizing for winter feeding is likely a thought in many minds.

To a livestock producer, winter feed costs make up a substantial portion of their expenses, as much as 60-65% of total costs. Studies in Alberta and Saskatchewan have found the average wintering costs for one cow is upwards of $2 per day, with some operations being over $3. Over a 200-day winter, that amounts to $400 to $600 just for one cow (McGrath 2017).

Extended grazing system can help alleviate costs by reducing the number of winter-feeding days, consequently reducing winter feed costs and depreciation on equipment. There are numerous alternatives to the conventional dry-lot winter-feeding system; swath grazing, bale grazing, and grazing crop residues. Aside from the obvious economic benefits of extended grazing, this practice also enables farmers to recycle nutrients back to the land.

Figure 1. A replacement heifer grazing on maturing pasture. Taken by AAES Director

While extended grazing has economic and land management benefits, farmers should be aware of the nutrient content in their feed. Many ranchers rely on sensory appraisals (colours, leaf content, smell) or knowledge of crop management to judge forage quality. Although these are indicators of the forage quality, they do not substitute a feed analysis. Various circumstances can change a plant's nutrient content, but may not alter its appearance, including harvest time, temperature, annual precipitation, and soil nutrients among many others.

Knowing the energy, protein, and mineral content of your forages can be useful when developing a feeding program since the nutritional needs of your animals are just as variable as the plant's nutrient content. Monthly forage tests can help to map out the nutrient fluctuations during a grazing season (McKinnon 2012, Grass Fed Solutions, 2018). A basic forage test is approximately $35 per sample, a small cost in the grand scheme of things.

Supplements can be used to extend grazing by subsidizing the dwindling plant nutrients as the growing season progresses and the plants mature. Protein and mineral supplements can help ranchers lengthen the grazing season by keeping their animals on cheap stockpiled fall pastures, thus cutting their feed costs.

Free-choice minerals containing salt, loose or block form, are a great choice when supplementing cattle on pasture. The salt acts as an intake limiter so each animal naturally gets an appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals. If a protein supplement is required, low-moisture molasses tubs are a convenient option and suit the changing seasons. Additionally, these can be useful for kickstarting a calf’s rumen and appetite for whole feeds. Precipitation typically doesn’t alter the palatability of these products; cattle will drink the sweetened water off the top and then continue to lick the supplement (Bryant, 2015). Most farmers balk at the cost of supplements, but in contrast to winter feeding, the more economical choice is obvious.

Typically, a mid to high-range mineral salt block complements the quality of forages in the fall. If protein is required, a supplement with 20 percent protein or higher is ideal. Table 1 defines the cost per head per day for these supplements.

After a dry summer last year, and a slow start to the 2019 growing season, hay prices in the prairies have been on the rise. In Saskatchewan, prices were as high as five to eight cents per pound (Saskatchewan Forage Council, 2019). At these prices, it could cost a rancher between $1.40 to $2.24 per head per day, excluding the cost of running machinery. Over a 220-day winter, winter hay can amount up to $495 per head!

If providing supplement can allow a farmer to extend his grazing season 45 days, that provides a savings of approximately $100 per head, considering feed costs alone.

While economics tend to be the driving factor on the majority of ranches, providing supplements during extended grazing has many benefits aside from reducing winter feeding costs. Nutrient recycling can aid in replenishing the soil with nutrients, allowing farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they apply. Offering protein and mineral supplements to animals can improve important production parameters including reproduction, weight gain, as well as the overall immune function. As the growing season ends, farmers should be looking at options that will extend their grazing season to get the most from their land and keep some money in the bank this winter.

Bryant. G. 2015. Top Tub Tips. Working Ranch Magazine. [blog]

Grass Fed Solutions, 2018. Cattle Supplements and Minerals. Grass Fed Solutions. [blog]

McGrath, S. 2017. Several Options for Winter Grazing, Grainews. [blog]

McKinnon, J. 2012. Have you had your Feed Tests? Beef Cattle Research Council. [blog]

Sasktchewan Forage Council. 2019; Forage Market Price Discovery – Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan Forage Council. http://www.saskforage.ca/images/pdfs/Market_Reports/Winter-2019-Forage-Market-Discovery.pdf