Jim Gerrish: Feeding hay impacts cattle profitability
By finding a balance between utilizing grazing lands and the amount of hay fed to cattle, producers can improve the profitability of their livestock operations, according to an Idaho grazing consultant.
Jim Gerrish addressed more than 50 cattle producers during the Jim Gerrish Grazing Seminar in Kimball, NE on Dec. 16. He discussed how to reduce the amount of hay fed to cattle, and how to better manage grazing lands to optimize the profitability of a cattle operation.
If ranchers could reduce the amount of hay they feed, they can significantly reduce their cost of production. “Hay is a big ticket item,” said Gerrish. “Most cattle producers feed hay to the extent they can make hay,” he said. “I have found that a big part of putting the profitability back into an operation is getting rid of the hay,” he stated.
In every region of the U.S., the consultant said winter feed costs and equipment depreciation are among the highest costs of running cattle. “Most ranches are over-capitalized on equipment compared to the number of cattle they have,” he said. “They need to eliminate equipment to the number of cattle.”
Gerrish encouraged producers to ask themselves, ‘What did I pay for the nutrition I was putting into that cow?’ Then, they need to look at the advantages of purchasing the amount of hay they need, versus growing it themselves.
There is also an opportunity cost involved. “Producers need to also ask themselves, ‘What else could I have been doing when I was making hay?'” Gerrish posed. “I could have been building fence to manage the forages I have more effectively, developing stock water to get more efficient distribution of cattle across my estate, or I could have even taken my family on a vacation?”
By spending more time monitoring the range and forage supply available, Gerrish believes producers could make more efficient use of what they have. They also need to evaluate other uses for land currently devoted to hay production.
“It is important to utilize the resources at your disposal,” he said. “Producers need to realize cattle are a business, and they need to approach it that way.”
Gerrish said he looks at every animal on the ranch as an employee with a specific job. “You, as the manager, need to know what the cow’s job is,” he said. Gerrish said his job description of a cow is one that can rustle its own grub, find the best bite of feed, deliver a calf every 12 months, stay healthy without a lot of fuss, keep the calf healthy and teach the heifer calf how to be a cow, enjoy where she lives, stay in the type of fence provided, and stay in the herd at least 10 years.
The manager needs to create an environment where the cow can excel, by creating the best pasture possible and building a fence they will stay in.
To effectively graze an area, Gerrish said producers need to accurately determine stock density, which is the animal’s live weight on a specific area at a given point in time. To determine stock density, Gerrish said producers need to multiply the available forage by the utilization rate to determine the amount of forage utilized. Then multiply the intake by the length of the grazing period to determine total intake. Divide the utilization rate by total intake to determine stock density for a 24-hour period.
Gerrish said producers should also reduce the number of cows if there is evidence of weather deterioration, wildlife grazing, or grasshopper infestations. “You need a flexible management system,” he said. “Monitor grazing for long-term pasture management.”
Gerrish said he takes an inventory of his forages every two weeks. “I visually estimate how much forage I have available,” he said. “I determine that by using cow days per acre.”
Through his consulting business, Gerrish said he has taught producers how to calibrate the amount of forage they have available, and has found after a period of time, the eye is pretty accurate.
“You get performance by leaving grass,” Gerrish said. “It is more important when you take the cattle off grass, than when you put them on it. Overgrazing results in a reduced root system preventing photosynthesis for root growth which allows the plant to grow,” he said.
To effectively manage his own cattle, Gerrish cross-fences his grazing areas using electric fence and moves cattle frequently. The design he has developed allows him to divide a piece of land that is a mile by a mile into smaller sections he strip grazes. He divided the piece through the middle with a tank pipeline, which provides a water source accessible from each tract cattle graze.
Gerrish has three permanent fences one-quarter mile apart and those fences are divided with step-in posts placed at 66-foot intervals. Using this system, Gerrish said he can take a fence down and set the fence up for the next move within 30-35 minutes each day.
“It is important to monitor and inventory the grazing area so you know what you have,” he said. “It is important to be a good observer, if you want to be a good grazing manager.”
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