South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By Sandy Smart

Nov 2021

Ranching in the northern Great Plains is a tough place to work, especially in the winter. Traditional winter feed costs can make up 60% or more of the annual cow expense due to the costs of making and feeding hay. A typical ranch operation might feed for 90-120 days or more depending on the severity of winter. Jim Gerrish wrote an interesting book entitled “Kick the Hay Habit” in which he lays out alternatives to making/feeding hay. I’ve also heard many stories from folks who have attended Dave Pratt’s Ranching for Profit School about these very issues. So what can we do? I’m going to talk about three things ranchers in South Dakota have tried to reduce winter feed costs: strip grazing stockpiled pasture, swath grazing forages, and bale grazing.

Strip grazing stockpiled pasture

You might wonder why bother to strip graze stockpiled pasture instead of just turning livestock out to graze unrestricted. Jim Gerrish had a great slide in his talk he gave during a Winter Road Show asking the question “What will a cow graze on day one when you turn them out to a winter pasture vs. what will she graze on day 100?” The answer is “whatever she wants on day one and not nearly what she needs to on day 100.” Since the grass is not growing, livestock graze the best portions of the plant first and consume more stems later on. Strip grazing allows the animals to consume the best parts with the not-so-best parts of the plant together. Thus, you can get more “mileage” out of your pasture. Anyone who has grazed corn stalks knows this well. They pick the corn first, then the leaves and husks next, and then they begin to get moved. Strip grazing evens out the forage quality by moving more frequently, thus extending the grazing days.

Swath grazing forages

Swath grazing involves a bit of preplanning. The idea is to cut or mow a swath of forages (could be grasses or legumes) in late summer or early autumn to preserve the forage quality at the time of cutting. Then the swaths are grazed in winter. I have seen Larry Wagner do this well at his place. Pictured to the right is an example of quality of forage underneath the surface. This technique really works.

Larry would then run a polywire parallel to the swath so the cattle would graze one swath at a time. The fence keeps the cattle on one side of the swath and reduces feed waste (see picture to the right).

Bale grazing

You’ve probably read a couple of articles about bale grazing which has been featured in the Grassroots newsletter in the past. It’s worth bringing up again. Bale grazing involves setting up the bales in a hayfield or pasture ahead of time and then running electric fence to allocate a certain number of bales for the herd. One question you get is how much feed waste do you get and does the spot choke out the grass/legume production for next year. The answer is it depends. You can get quite a bit of waste (maybe 15-20%) and the spot can be bare the next year (see picture to the left). However, the spots go away and the organic matter and nutrients increase the production in subsequent years. Doug Sieck from Selby, SD has been bale grazing for a number of years and he is a good person to visit with if you have questions.

Hopefully, you’ve noticed a pattern regarding the three options for extending the grazing season. Grazing stockpiled pasture is the cheapest but has a lower harvest efficiency and lower forage quality. Swath grazing involves cutting which costs more money, but it increases the forage quality, and harvest efficiency, and using a strip grazing method reduces waste. Finally, bale grazing is the most expensive, but has the best forage quality, and similar harvest efficiency as swathing. Feed wastage can be higher depending on how many bales you give the herd to graze each day. All three options are good alternatives. One thing I didn’t touch on is buying hay and feeding it or bale grazing. This option might cost more than if you put up your own hay, but you get the added benefit of importing someone else’s nutrients to your ranch. It also frees up time in the summer and you don’t have the added cost of machinery and depreciation (although when you purchase someone else’s hay you’re probably paying their machinery costs and depreciation). The hard part about purchasing hay is that you are increasing risk due to volatility in the market and freight charges can be significant as energy costs increase.

Sandy Smart is the Ag and Natural Resources Program Leader for SDSU Extension located in Brookings, SD.

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