Monday, July 5, 2010

Should small producers even bother baling hay – or move right over to mob grazing?

I’ve gone back and forth on this. And the bottom line seems to be that it’s always cheaper to buy hay than cut-rake-bale-store it.

Having just finished getting all my snack hay in the barn (alfalfa and orchard grass, which they love dearly), I’m now getting someone else to bale the rest of that acreage in big round bales for their main meals in late winter, early spring.

However, next year, I plan to do very little haying. Practically none. When you study up on high-density stocking, you can see that very quickly you’ll be able to stockpile grass enough to keep you through all but the most frozen-over times of winter.

Here’s some advice from NRCS Specialist Victor Shelton, off their OSU Extension Newsletter

Smaller operations, especially ones with less than 15 cows or equivalents would have difficult time justifying owning hay equipment. That depreciating investment would probably be best spent on improving the grazing efficiency of the farm or on fertility. I have to be careful here not to step on toes - but I've seen people buying a lot of hay equipment so they can stop buying hay and perhaps even "sell" some hay. While they really could have gotten away from using very little hay, they have spent their money on iron and now try and mine their soils to help pay for that equipment...can you really sell that hay for enough to replace the nutrients and pay for labor and equipment? Not likely.

If you are in what I will refer to as a "building" stage of soil fertility - in other words, it still needs some, then you would be better off bringing in fertility, i.e., hay, than to remove it. This is somewhat true even if you are not selling it and utilizing it yourself, you are still most likely removing nutrients from where they are needed and moving them to a "feeding" area where they are already high. Moving those "feeding" areas around some will certainly help, still the more you can graze, the better. If fields are in that "building" stage, it is counterproductive to cut hay off it - no question. You are just removing and moving needed nutrients - especially phosphorus. Let's look at the cost for just a moment and compare it to grazing. If you look at nutrient removal between the two scenarios - grazing an orchardgrass/clover mix pasture or haying this same field…assuming the nutrients are actually present; the grazing cost of nutrient removal is about $2.50 per ton dry matter produced. Hay cost from nutrient removal with the same nutrient values is about $40 per ton assuming that no or minimal nitrogen was applied and most nitrogen was supplied by the legume. Still want to cut hay off that field? Smaller operations are almost always better off buying what hay they need. You don't have to fight the weather and you can actually shop around and buy good quality hay - often cheaper than you can raise it.

Now I recall going to a grazing school a couple years back, where they told you how to make the transition over to managed grazing. First, you take the pasture you’ve been baling hay off of and put it back into the rotation. Next, buy just the minimal hay you need in order to get by during the worst of winters. Then, start stockpiling some pastures after August. This way, you’ll be able to feed these off during the early winter by strip-grazing them when they go dormant.

If you’re able to really (and daily) squeeze your cattle down to frequent moves, you’ll only visit the same spot approximately 2 times a year – in Ultra-High Density Stocking, or Mob Grazing. So they have plenty of time to regrow after your cows have stripped and stomped and fertilized everything in small strips.

The point is that you are saving time and money by utilizing your cows to do your reseeding and fertilizing. If you need hay, buy it – and then you’re bringing more nutrients back to the farm instead of having to buy expensive fertilizer and spend your time applying it.

What you will need is some decent minerals as free choice for the cows. This starts making up what your soil just doesn’t have. I’m still working on that one.

But thought to let you in on some haying data today…