Getting More Out of Less
Getting more out of less is an attractive concept in tough economic times. In 2008, average cow costs ran around $534 per head including depreciation. Averages can be deceiving; I heard an economist describe what an average is by saying, "If you stick your head in the freezer and your rear end in a fire, on average you should feel comfortable." To get a $534 average, we can assume that some producers had cow costs around $260 per head while others were approaching $800 per head. Here are some pasture and range dollar stretching tips to help you get cow costs down without sacrificing animal performance.
Fertilizer response is not equal across varieties, species, soil types, rainfall zones, etc. In similar environments, some varieties will statistically out-yield others with the same inputs. Look at a replicated bermudagrass variety trial to get a better idea of this concept. Knowing what introduced forages you have and applying fertilizer accordingly can save you money.
Eddie Funderburg, Noble Research Institute soils and crops specialist, describes applying fertilizer without a soil test this way: "Three things can happen: the first is you might apply a nutrient you don't need and waste your money by applying it. Second, you might not apply a nutrient you do need and not get the production you expect; and third, you might accidentally get it right." Enough said.
Variation exists in soils' water holding capacity, water availability, fertility and other soil properties. Developing a soil map of your property can help you identify and categorize soils on your property by productivity that will then allow you to manage them accordingly. The Web Soil Survey is an excellent tool to use for this and can be found at websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/. If you don't have Internet access, contact your local National Resources Conservation Service office.
Matching forage production to forage demand is a simple management tool that can help you trim the cost of supplementing forage deficits. Setting a moderate stocking rate for the long term provides you with a good combination of animal performance, plant persistence and sustainability. A summary of 25 studies on the effects of grazing intensity on native vegetation and livestock production in North America by Holechek et al., 1999, found net returns per acre highest for moderate grazing intensity, followed by light and then heavy.
Developing some type of a grazing management program gives you more control as a manager. It will not grow more grass, but it can help you utilize more of what you do grow and accumulate grass growth for use during times of the year when deficits may occur.
Fencing is a tool to get you where you want to go with grazing management. Fencing can help separate high production areas from low production areas, which you can then manage accordingly. Interior cross fencing does not have to be five-strand barbed wire. Electric fencing (either permanent or temporary) is certainly a way to improve your grazing management without the expense of building five-strand barbed wire.
Purchase your hay needs if entirely possible. By doing this, you are bringing nutrients onto your property rather than either depleting or redistributing yours. If this is not an option for you, then at least figure out your hay production costs; you might find some ways to trim back costs if you measure them first. Put up a quality hay product that you will not have to supplement or at least only have a minimal amount of supplementation. Finally, do a hay test. Feeding hay without a hay test is like applying fertilizer without a soil test.