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.
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.
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.
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.
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.