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Match forage flow with livestock nutritional needs to increase ranch profitability

Coordinating your calving or lambing season with peak forage availability can cut costs for feed, supplementation and labor, a Noble regenerative ranching advisor says.

Each year, the average rancher spends 40-60% of his or her cow costs on supplemental feeding, says Robert Wells, a Noble Research Institute senior regenerative ranching advisor.

If you’re having to supplement your livestock’s nutrition four to five months out of the year, imagine what reducing those costs by even a small margin could do for the bottom line. Wells recommends taking a new look at the timing of breeding and calving/lambing/kidding seasons in order to optimize nutrition from grazing.

“Our goal as good, astute managers should be to time our highest nutritional requirements of our livestock with when we’ve got the best quality and quantity of forage in front of that animal,” he says. “If we do that, we should be able to back off that supplementation. That can be a huge cost savings.”

Wells offers a handful of questions ranchers can ask themselves and considerations they can make to evaluate how well their production plan matches their forage flow.

Evaluate your environment

Charting forage flow on paper may offer a clear visual of key factors for consideration. Many ranchers carry this information in their heads, but committing it to paper can create a powerful visual tool that can benefit even the most seasoned rancher.

Start by inventorying what grasses or forages are available and whether they are predominantly warm- or cool-season plants. Then, mark on a timeline when each species or category is at peak quality in terms of protein and energy value.

Most local extension offices can offer average crude protein (CP) and total digestible nutrient (TDN) content measurements for native or introduced forages in your region, along with the typical variations in those measurements throughout the season. Or, have your forage tested to get a more accurate reading on your particular situation.

Then, mark when that peak in forage quality coincides with peak quantity. 

“When I say quantity, I mean, when do you get to the point where a cow can wrap her tongue around a bunch of grass, get a mouthful, stand there and chew on it, and just move her head to get another bite that she doesn’t have to walk to,” Wells says. “In the spring, at first green-up, we know that grass is really high quality. But if a cow is having to take a bite and then walk 10 feet to get another bite, that’s just a nibble. She’s expending more energy than she’s getting.”

Next, mark on the timeline when your forage typically tapers off. When does grass start to harden or go to seed, if left to mature?

Charting warm-season grasses will likely look like a typical bell curve, with peak production in May, June, July or August, depending on your geographic location, while cool-season grasses may hit their peak in April, May or early June, location depending, with another smaller bump in production in the fall before frost.

Once you have a flow chart of forage quality and quantity, make note of your typical weather patterns with expected peak rainfall and seasons of extreme heat or challenging cold.

Know your animals’ needs

Next, chart the peaks and valleys of your animals’ nutritional needs throughout the year, starting with your traditional calving/lambing/kidding season in mind. The animal’s highest nutritional requirements coincide with peak lactation needs. For cattle, that’s two to three months after calving; for sheep and goats, it’s four to six weeks post-partum. It also can be breeding season if you are trying to keep cows on an annual calving interval.

“At the beginning of your breeding season, you want that cow’s body thinking it’s never going to have another bad day in its life from a nutritional standpoint,” Wells says.



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