“Up Your Management” for Greater Returns on Your Herd

— Written By and last updated by JoAnne Gryder
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winter hay feedingCattlemen, are you going to run short on hay? Are you looking for hay to purchase? Well, in reality, there is not much hay for sale. And if you do find hay, it is probably too expensive to purchase anyway. Below are my thoughts and a checklist to help you. Basically, what I’m telling you is “up your management”.

Preg check your breeding herd.  Even if you have enough hay, open animals are costly to keep in your herd. Either utilize your local veterinarian to pregnancy check through rectal palpation, or utilize the BioPryn blood test. If they aren’t bred, sell them.

Get your pastures ready for grazing. The cheapest feed and highest quality feed is the forage you grow in your pastures. There are only four things we can do to manage pastures: fertilize, spray herbicides, sow seeds, and . . . control those biological lawn mowers. Most cattlemen/women are aware of the first three options – applying fertilizer, spraying herbicides, and sowing seeds. However, managing how often and how close cattle graze is at least as powerful a management technique as the other three options put together. Devise a plan to better manage your grazing. This can be done with temporary fences or cross fencing. Either are good options for managing the grazing of cattle. Just pick a plan and commit to it.

Look at alternatives to hay. Beef cattle can effectively utilize a wide variety of fibrous stuff and perform well on it. However, it is a little tricky to just do it. It takes the help of a good, trained nutritionist. Start by testing the hay you have at the farm. Then develop an animal inventory. Depending on the age and stage of production, the nutritional requirements can vary greatly. A first-calf heifer with a two or three month old calf has a very high nutritional need. On the low end, a mature, dry cow has a relatively low nutritional demand. Also, be sure to consider the body condition (amount of flesh) on the animals. Some animals in your herd may be thin and need some extra groceries to put on weight and get in better shape. Work with your Extension Agent to look at commodity feeding options.

Do a sanity check. Sometimes it is easy to get off track and not realize there is a fundamental problem. Below are a few questions designed to help you see how you are doing and where you should focus your management. This is a quick and dirty analysis, but it is a starting place if your current system is not working.

  1. How many acres of pasture do you have? __________
  2. How many cows do you have? __________
  3. How many months per year do you feed hay? __________

Now let’s do a simple analysis. Divide your pasture acreage by your cow numbers. For example, 40 acres of pasture divided by 20 cows equals 2. Having about 2 acres per cow-calf pair is in the right ball park. Of course, this also depends greatly on the productivity of your pasture and how it is managed. But, 2 acres per cow is good. If your stocking is higher, it might be a good idea to cull your herd so your stocking rate is 2 acres per cow – or really 2.5 acres per cow or more is even better when balancing your pasture with your animals, especially if your pastures need to recover.

Hay feeding is also a big part of the story. Ideally, 60 days of hay feeding per year is a good target to start with. If you are feeding your animals for 3 months (90 days) or more, there is room for improvement – especially if your stocking is in the 2 acres per cow range. On average, hay feeding is 2 to 4 times more expensive than feeding your animals from the pasture.

Work with your local Extension Agent or your NRCS/Soil & Water Conservation District Technician to develop a long term grazing plan for your farm. A profitable farm is a sustainable farm business that your children will take interest in. If your current management is not getting the job done, don’t be afraid to make well thought-out management changes.

NCSU Extension