Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Dr. Steve Blezinger

In the last issue we discussed the use of various forages in planning the nutrition program for your herd. Considering the environmental conditions many producers have experienced of late, the use of alternative forages has become quite important if not vital. One thing we have to consider is the cost of supplying these forages and what cattle may get out of them. In many circumstances due to environmental conditions the producer may put up very little stored forage (hay or silage) for use as a winter feed. Also, in this case the quality of the stored forage that he does manage to put up may be of very poor quality. That leaves him with a decision to make. He'll have to: a) purchase additional conventional forage (hay or silage), sell some of his herd, c) purchase alternative sources as we discussed or d) allow his herd to go hungry (not advisable). You'll recall in the last issue we compared different types of forages and the subsequent costs. In many cases producers forget that they are not just buying “hay” but a source of nutrients and it is, in fact, the cost of these nutrients we have to compare. Based on current grain and forage markets as well as forage availability we begin to evaluate the possibility of minimizing the use of forages such as hay in our feeding and nutrition planning. With corn available at $1.85 per bushel or less ($66 per ton), a program can be designed using corn, milo or one of a host of by-products that can be fed in place of a great deal of the normal amounts of the various forages typically fed. If circumstances are appropriate and the correct logistical considerations are taken into account, a feeding program of this nature could save the producer significant amounts of money in addition to improving the condition and productivity of the herd. The following will examine some of the possibilities and outline how comparisons should be made. Additionally, we'll discus potential problems that could develop and how to avoid these bumps in the road.

What Does Hay Really Cost?

Let's consider some of the economics. Typical production costs of hay can range anywhere from $20.00 to $30.00 per round bale. The actual cost of producing this hay includes:

1) Land costs (mortgage, rent, taxes)

2) Fertilization

3) Plant establishment (depending on species)

4) cutting, raking, baling (this may be a custom charge paid to someone else or the cost of equipment, maintenance, fuel, depreciation, etc., if you own and operate the equipment yourself.

5) removal from field to storage area

6) feeding

7) shrink or loss as waste

Typically, when all the costs are taken into consideration, dry hay can be a pretty expensive feed. Unfortunately, few producers take a comprehensive view of what it actually costs to produce the hay they utilize. Additionally, these costs are considered on a cost per bale. Due to factors like type of grass, moisture, etc., the weight of a group of round bales can be extremely variable. Hay needs to be evaluated on cost per lb. or cost per ton to eliminate some of this variability. A 1,200 lb. round bale costing $20 per bale to produce and feed translates to a cost of $ 33.33 per ton ($20.00/1200 X 2000). A similar weight bale costing $28 per bale translates to a per ton cost of $46.67. When we take into account that more often than not we lose about 25 percent of the hay we feed the two per ton costs mentioned then increase to $44.44 and $62.22 respectively (cost/75 percent). That's getting pretty expensive.

On the other hand, when hay is in short supply and it appears necessary that additional amounts must be purchased, the cost goes even higher. When a given region is dry, the availability of hay locally is unlikely. This means that hay must be shipped in from farther distances. That adds freight into the cost equation plus whatever profit margin the seller adds on to the cost. I have seen average to poor quality round bales, weighing 1,200 lbs (less in many situations) being sold at a delivered price of $50 per bale or more. Put that through the equations we outlined above and you get hay that is costing you about $111 per ton.

Compare the costs on a per cow basis over the course of a 100 day hay feeding season. A typical 1,100 lb. pregnant cow will need to eat about 25 lbs. of hay per day, slightly less if there is stockpiled forage available in the pastures. This means she will eat around 2,500 lbs. of hay over the course of this season. The simple table below compares what the cost for that cow for the feeding season would be based on the cost of hay produced or hay purchased:

As you can see, when production costs go up or when it becomes necessary to purchase hay from outside sources, production costs per cow can go through the roof. Add into this picture the cost of a protein/energy and mineral supplements, which can easily add another $30 to $50 per head over this period, you have a substantial feed bill just for winter feeding alone and in the case of utilization of purchased hay, your profit margin has vanished or is now printed in red ink.

So what can be done to reduce this cost.

Dry-Lotting the Cow Herd?

Over the years every possible way of feeding and maintaining cattle has probably been tried. Some with a great deal of success. Some that were less than successful. Some have been an out and out train wreck. Maintaining or wintering a cow herd in a pseudo dry lot environment has proven successful in many situations and primarily when grains are relatively inexpensive and forages are high or are of poor availability (these two normally go together). We have built several programs over the years in which higher levels of inexpensive grains were fed in place of expensive hay of questionable quality that could be bought and shipped in. Understand though that there is still a need for a forage source to maintain rumen health and provide the necessary bulk to keep the animal warm during cold weather periods.

The point behind “dry-lotting” during periods such as this when hay or forage may be in short supply but grains are plentiful and relatively inexpensive is to replace significant portions of the hay being fed with this less expensive nutrient source.

Let's look at some cost comparisons. Using the production costs we generated before lets look at protein and energy costs. Once again using our 1,100 lb. pregnant cow, we've looked up her daily nutrient requirements and we've found she needs 10.5 percent Crude Protein and .62 Megacalories of Net Energymaintenance (Mcal NEm) per lb. of diet consumed. If she is eating a total of 25 lbs. of dry matter per day (about 30 lbs. as-fed), she'll need 2.63 lbs. of crude protein per day and 15.5 Mcal Nem. per day. Using the hay costs we generated above we find that the cost of the protein and energy in the hay is pretty high and also less than what is needed by the cow. In other words we have to add additional protein and energy to the program from a supplemental source. Assuming the hay tests 8.5 percent protein and .56 Mcal NEm per lb. we get the following costs per unit of nutrient.

Compare these costs to some other feed and grain sources at current markets:

As you can see from this table many of the commonly available feed ingredients are currently as inexpensive as normally produced hay on a nutrient basis. When you consider the cost of purchased forage you can see they are much less expensive.

Based on these economics we can see that in certain circumstances it becomes very cost effective to reduce the feeding of hay or at least make due with the stored forage available on the farm and replace nutrients normally gotten from the hay from a grain, by-product or other feed source. In general this can reduce the overall winter feeding cost significantly compared to the use of purchased hay. Another potential benefit is that the producer can actually do a more consistent job of delivering the nutrients needed. This can result in maintaining a better body condition on the cow and improving reproductive performance.

Additional benefits include:

1) Smaller amount of pasture/land area needed.

2) Time/labor needed to check cattle is reduced.

3) Cattle stay in better condition and realized improved reproductive function as noted above.

4) Use of various feed ingredients can reduce costs even further as markets allow.      

5) Greater opportunity to reduce winter feeding costs.

At the same time before embarking on a dry-lot or concentrated feeding program a number of logistical factors have to be considered.

1) Facilities and equipment to handle large amounts of mixed feed. This includes feed troughs or bunks, feed and ingredient storage, mixing and delivery equipment.

2) Labor availability for a more regimented feeding program.

3) Potential for mud or dust problems due to animal concentration.

4) At or about calving, cows need to be moved into a larger grassy area to reduce potential health risks to the cow and calf.

A program of this nature obviously has positive and negative factors that have to be considered in addition to the simple cost comparison between a simple hay program and a more intensive dry-lotting program. However, in years such as the last few we have experienced, a long term cost analysis could be warranted to determine feasibility of such a program. If you already have some of the resources in place to facilitate this program, implementation becomes fairly simple. However if significant investments must be made in facilities and equipment, careful study is involved to determine overall cost-effectiveness. As with any new program, careful evaluations must be made.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a consulting nutritionist with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX he can be reached at P. O. Box 653, Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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