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"Yes, that’s right; they literally rolled up their ranch’s entire forage stand right out from underneath their cattle."
Published in 2001
Making Hay: A Horrible Practice!
For the past couple of months I’ve been building a customized, cattle-handling facility designed by Dr. Temple Grandin (www.grandin.com). It’s next to my barn, which is close to the road. The facility is not the subject of this column though. The subject is about what I saw going on across the road while working on my project and what I saw going on nearly everywhere between my ranch and town when I made trips for supplies. I saw folks making hay.
The folks who own the ranch across the road are absentee owners. They drop in periodically to wean off whichever calves are big enough for a one-way trip to the local sale barn. This year they also showed up with truckloads of equipment for their biannual hay-cutting exercise. I don’t know if they plan it this way, but every two years or so they cut so much grass they have enough hay for two winters. They accomplish that feat by cutting hay off every square foot of their ranch at one time!
As I watched them working into the night it dawned on me that they were “rolling up their pastures”–all of them! Yes, that’s right; they literally rolled up their ranch’s entire forage stand right out from underneath their cattle.
After their haying job was finished, my wife agreed their freshly mowed pastures were beautiful. Their place reminded me of a huge, manicured golf course. Here and there they had long pyramid-shaped stacks of hay covered with shiny tarps, monuments to their foresight and enterprising behavior. Over on our place the grass looks shaggy, and there are even unsightly weeds. Some of our paddocks look like they’ve been grazed and others look overgrown. One certainly couldn’t say our pastures were uniform and beautiful like a golf course. And for sure we don’t have any monuments of neatly stacked hay rolls to indicate to everyone passing by that we were prepared for the winter of all winters.
Proud as Punch
It wasn’t too many years ago that I used to ask our neighbor to cut my “hay meadows” so I too could put up hay for the winter. I was proud and thankful for having a big hay barn that could hold 400 big rolls. I had all the equipment for feeding hay in the winter, and my cows knew how to eat it. As a result, I was always proud of the fact that my cows came through the winter looking like fat hogs. But then I learned some things that inspired me to change my management practices. The changes lowered my overall costs to produce a pound of beef, improved my pastures, and improved the health of my cattle–that is, the cattle that could get along with my no-hay, no-grain, no-cubes, and no-protein-lick environment.
Looking back, I can see that my old traditional ways were high-cost management practices that weren’t environmentally sustainable. My cows were calving out of sync with Mother Nature, so I had to supplement them in the winter. To do that, I cut hay off my pastures and mined the nutrients from the soil. The value of the nutrients was about $12 per roll! Not only that, but by cutting hay I removed organic matter from the pastures. I could walk out into my hay fields and look down and see soil, not litter, between the grass plants.
At this stage of my story the folks who live on snow-covered mountain tops usually tell me that my no-subsidy program is so much nonsense. They tell me how bitter their winters are and that I’m out of touch with reality. My opinion on their perspective is that they are the ones who decided to live on snowy mountain tops, not the cows. Obviously their goal is to own cows no matter what. They aren’t interested in being economically and environmentally sustainable, which is my goal. So we are worlds apart in our management approaches and both of us are right. Right?
The Benefits of No Hay
Let me dig a little deeper into the benefits of never cutting hay off one’s ranch. First of all, cattle do a better job of recycling nutrients over all of the pastures than when man cuts hay and feeds it back to the cattle. It’s a fact–soil nutrients aren’t unlimited. Therefore, they must be replaced if removed. Nutrients cost money, so unless one wants to mine his soils and leave infertile land to his descendants, he must use a complete fertilizer to replace the $12 of nutrients he removes with each roll of hay. On the other hand, if one doesn’t cut hay, nitrogen fertilizer may still be applied for optimum forage production, but the cost is less than applying a complete fertilizer for the same quantity of grass produced.
Second, when grass dies or is recycled by the cows and decomposes back into the soil it turns into organic matter. Organic matter is one of the driving forces for a healthy soil and future plant growth. It’s a nitrogen source in addition to being a source for other nutrients vital for plant growth. When grass dies and mats down onto the soil surface as litter it protects the soil from hard rains. This reduces erosion of valuable top soil.
Third, when fields are cut for hay, usually the grass is cut too short in order to maximize hay yield. When that happens, root systems are stunted and the shorter grass can’t shade the soil. Consequently, hayed pastures are less drought tolerant than properly grazed pastures in rotational grazing systems. That means less grass may be produced off the hay meadows than the pastures.
Fourth, cows that calve in sync with Mother Nature don’t need hay in the winter except for emergencies. It only makes sense when one asks himself, “When do most of the wild animals in my area have their babies?” If you’re asking your cattle to calve at a different time, then you’re going to have to pay a higher price for your request. This point is so fundamentally grounded that it’s amazing the logic of it escapes the vast majority of beef cattle producers. It’s not only common sense, but it makes economic sense when a producer lets his cows act like the wild beasts they once were.
Grass Is Cheap
An important point to remember is that it is less expensive to grow grass and let the cattle harvest it than it is to grow it, cut it, rake it, bail it, move it, store it, move it, and feed it. But what about the quality of the dormant summer grasses standing in the fields during the winter months? Well, it’s good! It’s good enough for dry cows just beginning the last trimester of pregnancy. I find it strange that folks are willing to let their cattle graze corn stalks in the winter and other “crops” that cattle never evolved eating. Yet these folks assume the dormant summer grasses cattle once grazed on in the wild won’t do for their domesticated cattle today. That is amazing logic.
In many parts of the country fall rains bring a spurt of forage growth just before winter sets in. Cattlemen can take advantage of that event by fertilizing their pastures just before the onset of fall rains. That can provide a major boost in better-quality standing forage that can carry their cattle in real style through the winter.
Mother Nature certainly can whip up some severe weather. The folks around here are always reminding me of “how bad it can get.” The past two years were quite bad and records were set, but I didn’t feed any hay. In spite of that, I have a plan for real emergencies. It’s to purchase hay from others and import nutrients to my ranch if required. If over a 10-year span I need two months of hay, I don’t see a need to stockpile hay in a barn. I’ll just keep letting Mother Nature store my winter forage needs the way she always did. And I’ll let my cattle harvest it just like they evolved doing through all of time.
Copyright 2001, Slanker Productions, Powderly, Texas
Ted E. Slanker, Jr., firstname.lastname@example.org
R.R. 2, Box 175, Powderly, Texas 75473-9740
903-732-4653 Ofc, 903-732-4151 Fax
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