Posted By: Jesse Williams
Before you get your knickers in a twist that I am suggesting bale grazing is somehow bad, don't (and it's not). I decided to write this post because of several experiences over the last few winters with ag specialists that seem to think they know our operation better than us. We have literally been told again and again that we are wasting our money by rolling out bales for our cow herd in the winter and that we could apparently save significantly by bale grazing. Now, I am a bit of a stubborn person so I don't like being told what I should and should not do, particularly when it comes to my own ranch and our cost of production. So we simply did the math. With our own numbers. For our own ranch.
Now I can already hear the nay-sayers complaining that this isn't an accurate representation of truck costs associated with bale unrolling, however I don't really care. This is literally the cost (to the penny in the case of 2015) for us. Obviously this would not be a comparable cost for a brand new diesel dually with a Falcan bale deck, but that's not we have so why would I calculate that? I am only interested in what makes sense for my operation, not what the neighbors are doing.
Our Daily Costs
So let's consider fuel. It costs us, on average (with $1.00/L gas) $120/month to feed our cows. We feed a variety of bales including pea straw ($45/bale), oat greenfeed ($100/bale) and hay ($175/bale) each week. I can hear the groans from readers again, however these are the actual bale costs, including delivery that we paid in the summer of 2015 to put them in our stack. And yes, we did pay a whopping $250/ton for that hay, but it was all we could get our hands on in the drought we experienced (we had it shipped from Pincher Creek) and yes, it did hurt to pay that, but our herd needs fed.
The fact that we utilize a variety of feed sources is important. We use Alberta Agriculture's Cowbytes ration balancing program and feed test all of our bales to determine the nutritional requirements of our herd. While we could balance their ration with just high quality hay, we simply couldn't afford to do that. So we got creative and calculated a ration with pea straw, greenfeed and hay that would meet the nutritional requirements of our pregnant and calving cows, that was also economical. Because our herd is small and bale size is fixed, we feed 8 pea straw, 4 greenfeed and 2 hay, on average, per week for a herd of 72. Of course this varies with the weather and as the cows mature during pregnancy. Based on that average, it costs us $2.20/head/day in feed alone.
Let's add that to the $0.05/head/day in fuel, using that $120/month average, which means it costs us $2.25/head/day. Now of course, we need to factor in some repair costs on trusty old Jack, so let's add another $0.25/head/day, which would equal a $1620 allowance, assuming a 3 month winter feeding program. Seeing how that is more than triple our 2015 actual costs of maintenance and repair, I'd call that adequate.
So overall, it is costing us $2.50/head/day, conservatively, to feed our cows on our operation, with our bale deck and truck.
The Economics of Bale Grazing
Let's compare that $2.50/head/day to what it would cost our operation to switch to bale grazing. The main reason we have shied away from bale grazing is the difficulty in varying our herd's diet. In order to be able to continue feeding three sources of bales, we would have to organize bales in our grazing system so that a one week supply of feed would consist of the 8 pea straw, 4 greenfeed and 2 hay. But I can tell you, if you give cows the option of multiple feed types at once, they will gorge themselves on the high quality types, and bed themselves on the pea straw. To battle this when unrolling bales, we only feed one feed type per day, making them clean up before we give them a different source.
The other option would be to give the herd access to only one type of feed per week. While the waste factor may be less, this is not a valid option in our opinion, as the large swings in nutritional value would be unhealthy for our herd.Therefore, the only option to make bale grazing work on our operation is to feed only one feed source, which would have to be hay in order to reach our nutritional requirements, according to Cowbytes. And with the price we had to pay for hay ($100/bale) due to our drought, that would mean a significant change in cost. The total would be $3.88/head/day. In addition to that, according to Alberta Agriculture's Wintering Site Assessment and Design Tool, bale grazing wastage is 8% higher than unrolling hay onto the snow, the total would rise to $4.19/head/day for our operation!
That is an extra $1.69/head/day, which would amount to a total of $10,951.20 extra for our 72 head herd over 3 months of winter feeding.
At the end of the day, PLEASE STOP TELLING ME WHATS BEST FOR MY RANCH! Let me do the math and figure out what's the most economical, time saving, nutritionally optimal for the unique needs of my herd. Just like I want every other producer to do on their own place. I am not telling you to stop bale grazing or start unrolling hay, but I am simply just suggesting that we should all take a look at our own numbers and stop yelling across the fence at the neighbors!
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