Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 Winter Feed Program

An incredible amount of time has been spent on the getting cows fed this winter in the part of the country I live in. The summer was hot and dry, and the usual feed suppliers were lucky to produce enough to meet their own needs. There is very little leftover forage for the cows to eat over the winter, and we're basically feeding them every bite they consume this year. It has taken more time, money and planning to get a winter feed supply delivered, and more time than usual on the feeding end as well.
What do I mean when I say, "feed the cows?" This post is on what we're actually doing every single day around here to make sure our cows are not only fed, but provided the right feeds to meet their nutritional needs and energy requirements.

First, we did a lot of research and determined what feeds were the best combination of price and in meeting our needs in terms of nutrients, filler and quality. Since we have a hay hauling business, we ended up deciding on a combination of various types of hay, including (very) low quality grass hay, medium quality grass hay, high quality grass hay and high quality oat hay. We are feeding this in combination with a cake protein supplement (you can learn more about what cattle cake is here).
Before we can feed any of this to our cattle, it has to be delivered to our ranch. The cake comes from the company that produces it, but the hay is all delivered by my dad and brother. Usually they haul each load between 100 and 200 miles. But, this year that has more than doubled, and a load hauled 450 miles is considered a short trip. This has meant a lot of extra time on the road for the haulers, which has consequently limited their ability to haul for other people. So, we're spending more on feed, spending more on fuel to deliver it, and making less with the business as a whole because we aren't hauling for other people. That's a challenge lots of ranchers are facing this year.
Since the guys are so busy, their end of the feeding program has primarily been the delivery end. From there, my mom and take over, and are usually the two in charge of making sure the right amount of each kind of hay, and the right amount of cake, is fed every day.

Feeding is done on a set schedule, regardless of what else may be going on, the weather, how we're feeling or what other tasks we have to accomplish that day. Here is mom filling the cake feeder out of our cake storage bin. Our cake feeder is set on a scales, and each cow gets a specific amount of cake based on her nutritional needs, the protein content of the cake, the temperature, and a few other varying factors. We know how many cows are in each bunch we feed, and if we're in doubt as to whether we have them all or not, we will count them and adjust how much cake we feed accordingly.

Meanwhile, if there are two of us around, the second person (me) is loading two bales of hay from specific piles within one hay corral. If there is just one person, we feed cake first because it is the most palatable to the cows (it tastes the best).

 The person feeding cake typically arrives in the pasture with the cows first, since they're going to be feeding first. We use sirens to let our cows know it's time for breakfast, and they start the trek to an area of the pasture that is pickup accessible. Different ranchers use different sirens, and cows know the difference and respond to "their" siren from several miles away in some instances. The reason for sirens is some of our pastures are very big (we measure them by miles long and wide), and the sound of a siren carries over long distances much better than a horn. They also last longer than horns, and are easier to hear in wind.

 While the cows make their way to the feeding area, the cake feeder heads down to check the water tank. We have at least two water sources on in each pasture our cows are in, and are sure to check the primary source every other day while feeding. This water tank has the overflow set to drip continuously this year, which prevents ice buildup like in the above photos most of the time. But, water is critical for cattle, so regardless of how reliable a tank is, we check it.

 On this day the hay feeder checked the water, and is headed back to where we will feed for the day. Since it's so dry this year, we are being careful not to feed in the same location because the cows are tromping the grass worse than normal, and basically churning it to dust if we feed in a spot twice. It usually isn't snowy here like in the above photo, which was a welcome bit of moisture a couple weeks ago!

 Eventually everyone arrives. It's important to wait for everyone so they get equal chance at feed, especially the cake. This can mean sitting for over an hour some days. Only a few pounds of cake per cow meet her nutritional requirements, and the cake is also what makes low quality hay work. A cow can eat cake at approximately 30 mph, and is like a bovine vacuum cleaning house. If you're not there when it hits the ground, you're probably not going to get any. The same is true with hay, but since several more pounds per cow are fed, it does take longer to consume it.

 When everyone shows up, the cake feeder begins feeding, watching the scale head located in the cab as they go. The cake feeder has a control that is also wired into the cab that turns it on and off. It's what you would call a "customized" cake feeding system, seeing as how the entire thing was homemade.

 Here's an up close view of the cake feeding out onto the ground. Speed is somewhat important here - you don't want to feed it too fast or it's all in a small area and the less aggressive cows won't get very much. But, you also don't need to spread it out over miles of prairie - that would take a long time to eat and waste your time feeding.

 Meanwhile, the hay pickup waits, preparing to role out a specific amount of hay following the cake feeders run.

 Here's a closer look at the combination of hays we're feeding this year (the red door is another story).

And an even closer look. The one the left is an oat straw bale, and you can see the oats in it. This would be considered a high quality winter forage. On the right is CRP grass hay, which ranges from awful to decent in quality. We've actually been very surprised at how well our cows are doing on the lower quality grass hays we're procured.
There is technique involved in feeding the hay too. The oat straw bale is left for last. This is primarily because, while we did have it tested and it didn't show anything of concern, there is always the potential of Nitrate poisoning in grain hays. To reduce the risk even more, we feed all the grass bales first, which means the cows eat on them for at least a few minutes, before we give them the option of the oat bale. Since it is a higher quality feed, they will all go eat it as soon as you give them the chance, but with additional grass already in their rumen, the chance of toxicity is reduced. Just a management practice we do in an effort to make sure there is never a problem in this area.

 This cow would like her oat bale, please.
We do that for two bunches of cows (the mature cows and the young cows/yearling heifers) every other day. This day is known as "The Big Feed Day," and on averages takes from 7:30-10:30, if the cows are close at hand and the weather is reasonable. But, we always plan on all morning, and it can easily turn into that.

Here is the second bunch, which are the yearling heifers and coming three-year-old cows. They are kept separate from the older, mature cows because they have a hard time competing with the older cows for feed, and won't winter as well if they're expected to compete. It's like high school sports, and comparing freshman to seniors. Some will do just fine, but most freshman will struggle when up against a bunch of seniors. It's also worth making sure these cows stick around at this age because they represent our best genetics, and we have a lot of money invested in them at this point, without a lot of return.
We feed this bunch hay every day, and cake every other day. We went to every day on hay because we noticed they weren't doing a great job cleaning the hay up, despite not being fed any extra. My dad wondered if it had something to do with them not having the physical capacity to eat and store such a large volume of hay at once - they're getting more than most years because we're having to feed them everything they eat this year instead of relying on grass for part of their filler. He was right, and since we've switched we've upped these girls' consumption, and they've improved considerably on cleaning up their feed.
This is how we're doing it this year. We make changes and tweaks every year, and sometimes even within a feeding season based on the available grass, condition of our cows, cost of various supplemental feeds and the condition of our cows going into winter. It takes a lot of advance planning, careful watching, and knowing what a cow needs in a variety of situations.
This is also one of those aspects of ranching that will probably be at least a little different, and often a lot different, from ranch to ranch. Year-round management decisions will vary between ranches, and will result in different needs and concerns over the winter months. There are a lot of feed options, weather, water, grass and terrain differences, and numerous other aspects of wintering cattle well that come into play when designing and following through with a feed program. What works best in one location may not work best next door, let alone across the state or country.

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