We hear a lot about eating a healthy, balanced diet as humans. Well, livestock are no different. They need a certain amount of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals in their diet to stay healthy, grow, have a safe pregnancy, and to produce milk after they've had their baby. Making sure they get a proper diet is the responsibility of their owner.
Another thing that comes into play for livestock, just as in humans, is the cost of their diet. As a rancher, I would love to be able to feed my cattle the best of everything. But, if I did that, I would be broke pretty quick, and then they would have nothing to eat. So, much as many families budget their food spending, ranchers also look at how they can provide the best possible feed to their livestock at the most affordable price.
Then there are "unique" years, like 2012, which resulted in a lot of feeds not producing as they were expected to. For example, without enough rain, a lot of grass that ranchers would normally make into hay for winter had to be grazed in the summer A lot of grains didn't produce enough of the actual grain to make it worthwhile to combine them, so they became hay.
When it was all said and done, ranchers had to do what they do every year - look at what they needed to winter their livestock, what they had on hand, what was available to buy, and how they could most effectively and economically produce a winter diet for their livestock that was affordable while also meeting their nutritional needs.
What did we do? Well, my fiancee (more on that later!), along with a lot of other producers, decided to grind hay. But, he went another step, and ground a lot of different kinds of hay into one big pile, creating a combination of forages that his cattle would like to eat, and which would meet a lot of their nutritional requirements. Here is a picture of the grinding setup, and all the hay he was combining to make a perfect meal for his cattle.
It's kind of like making a stir-fry, with some really good steak, some vegetables, rice and sauce, and mixing it all together so your kids will eat their vegetables and rice along with the meat and sauce.
He pays the guy you see above for the use of his machine. This year the guy was so busy that you had to be put on his list several weeks to months before he would actually get to your place. Planning in advance is also important to get the right feed, in the right form, at the right time, for feeding livestock.
The way it works is you dump the bales into that big drum in the order you want them mixed. My fiancee was mixing about five different piles of hay together, ranging from some really good grain hay (some of that stuff that didn't do well enough to combine the grain this year) all the way down to some old, poor quality grass (this is valuable because it helps fill the animal up). He would drive around in his tractor from pile to pile and bring the hay in the order he wanted, and drop it in the drum, thus making his very own custom feed for his cows.
The engine on the front of the trailer runs the drum, and can be adjusted depending on the type of hay and speed that the rancher is bringing it. The conveyor on the back transports the ground hay to the pile, where it will be stored until it is fed.
Here he comes with the first type of bale, which is an older hay.
You just drive up, and drop the bale into the spinning drum,
The drum spins the bale around while teeth on the bottom chew the bale, taking the blades of forage that could be well over a foot in length down to a couple inches.
How does this process improve the forage? By making the pieces of grass smaller, it makes them more palatable to a cow, and she is more likely to eat them. Mixing the high quality and poorer quality hays all together and grinding them means the cows will like eating it more than if you just rolled the hay out, and also means they will eat all the different kinds of hay at once. In comparison, if you rolled out a grain hay bale and an old grass bale, they would not eat the grass bale, and would waste it. Kind of like some kids and eating their vegetables.
Around it goes again.
The conveyor continually churns out the finished product into a pile. This is also a very dirty, dusty job, as you can see in the above photo. But it's worth it to have something good to feed your cows all winter, without having to buy a lot of additional forage.
Here he comes with another, different type of bale.
And another. You can see how more than one bale was in the drum most of the time, maximizing the mixing of the different hays. You can also see the controls for the engine on this side of the machine.
When he was all done, several hours later, he had turned multiple piles of almost useless forage and a couple piles of good stuff into something that would not only keep is cattle fed for the winter, but that they would like eating.
Here are his heifer calves, eating the ground hay mixture the next day. Since he is expecting these to grow at a specific level, he adds additional energy and protein supplements to their hay when he feeds it. This is another nice thing about having a big pile of ground hay - it works as a base for a lot of different meals for the different types of cattle he has on his place (calves, young cows, old cows, bulls). He can feed it straight out of the pile, or add different ingredients as he needs to for each group of cattle.
As I mentioned before, this is what a lot of producers in the western U.S. are doing with their various hay supplies this year to make feeding their cattle work, without going broke. Next year it will probably be something different for a lot of people, depending on the year, the cattle and numerous other factors.