Why Am I Feeding All This Hay?
How about this for a New Year's resolution? Feed less hay next winter. There is nothing you can do about your forage situation for the remainder of this winter, aside from selling cattle or buying more hay. However, if you start planning now, you can put yourself in a position to drastically reduce the amount of hay that you will need to feed next year.
Why do people rely so much on feeding hay in the winter? I believe the answer is that they are overstocked. When you run more livestock than your property will support, you will run out of grass. If you are buying hundreds or thousands of tons of hay every year just to get your cattle through to spring, you are either overstocked or experiencing the effects of a terrible drought. Whatever the case, you are reducing your profit margin when you buy hay. In some cases this additional cost is warranted, but in most cases it is not.
Ideally, you should set your stocking rate at about 75-80 percent of your ranch's carrying capacity. Your carrying capacity should be determined by either using your county soil survey published by the USDA-NRCS (or on the Web at websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app) or by historic stocking data for your ranch. A Noble Research Institute pasture and range consultant can help you determine yours.
The county soil survey method is based on the types of soils on your property and your forage base for those soils. This tool will have vegetation productivity values for below-average and above-average rainfall years, but I want you to focus on the values listed for the elusive "normal" rainfall year. Using the productivity values for a "normal" year, you can determine your carrying capacity for your property. If you are using historic stocking data for your ranch, a 2008 Ag News and Views article by Hugh Aljoe will help you determine if you are overstocked ("Top Eight Spring Pasture Management Considerations"; April 2008).
Once you know the carrying capacity for your place, don't stock your pastures at 100 percent of that value. Instead, back it off to about 75-80 percent of the total to allow yourself some flexibility. If you happen to find yourself in a drought situation, your culling protocol won't be as ruthless as it would be if you were stocked to the maximum. On the other hand, if you find yourself with more grass than your less-than-maximum-sized cow herd can consume, you can bring in some summer stockers to diversify your operation and convert some of that excess forage to a marketable product (beef). Or, in a cattle market like we saw in the fall of 2008, you can retain your weaned calves for a few extra months, put some cheap gain on them and capitalize on the prices that will be paid for those larger calves in January, February or March compared to smaller, freshly weaned calves.
Finally, the easiest way that I know of to reduce the amount of hay that you feed is to stockpile forage in the late summer and early fall. This practice is as simple as designating a bermudagrass pasture that has the appropriate acreage (1 acre per cow per month of grazing) and grazing it short by early August (not a problem for most operations). Then pull the cattle off, apply 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre (if the price is right) and let the fall rains come. If all goes well, you could have belly-high grass of high quality that your cows will harvest for you by early November. For maximum efficiency, utilize electric wire and "strip-graze" this forage. Many people have success with this type of system well into January before the quantity and quality become limiting.