Idaho Ranch Manager Lowers Costs By Kicking The Hay Habit

Ranch lowers costs by better grazing management and by making cattle graze the forage instead of making it into hay.

Published on: May 2, 2013

By Robert Waggener

In his effort to kick the hay habit, ranch manager Mike Kossler is now grazing cattle through much of the growing season in irrigated pastures instead of mechanically harvesting that hay.

Kosler manages Eagle Valley Ranch in east-central Idaho near Salmon.

He now grazes the cattle through much of the winter on grass left standing in irrigated pastures or on "hay" left on the ground in windrows.

Kossler uses permanent fence along with lines of portable electric fence to create three- to five-acre paddocks. Typically in each of these paddocks about 300 cows are grazed for two days before being moved into the next paddock. The next paddock is set up before time to move.

In his effort to kick the hay habit, ranch manager Mike Kossler is now grazing cattle through much of the growing season in irrigated pastures instead of mechanically harvesting that hay.
In his effort to kick the hay habit, ranch manager Mike Kossler is now grazing cattle through much of the growing season in irrigated pastures instead of mechanically harvesting that hay.

In the winter Kessler uses a cordless electric drill to poke 3-inch-deep holes in the frozen ground for the electric fence posts.

"We spend about 30 minutes a day to set up feeder lines and move cows, versus three to four hours a day feeding hay," Kossler says. "Before we started this program, we traditionally fed hay from late November to May or June. Now, we don't typically start feeding until late February or March."

Hay replacer: Portable electric fence and water developments have allowed the Eagle Valley Ranch to graze cattle through much of the winter on windrowed hay left on the ground and grass left uncut in irrigated pastures.
Hay replacer: Portable electric fence and water developments have allowed the Eagle Valley Ranch to graze cattle through much of the winter on windrowed hay left on the ground and grass left uncut in irrigated pastures.

Some stored hay is necessary, especially to account for years of heavy snow, he adds.

"We didn't start feeding until mid-February in 2012, but in 2011 we were feeding supplemental hay by December 10 because of heavy snow," he says. "That's why you have to have a stored hay supply."

Down the road, Kossler says, the ranch may totally eliminate its haying operation and purchase whatever stored hay it needs from neighboring ranches.

"In 2006, I did a detailed economic analysis and it was costing us $91 to put up each ton of hay. Today, it would probably be $110—or even more."

In the early winter, before supplemental feeding starts, Kossler says the ranch spends about 56 cents a day for four pounds of corn gluten per cow. In the past it was spending $2.20 a day per cow to feed stored alfalfa.

Kossler says another cost-efficient move they made is to leave about 100 acres of grass/alfalfa in windrows instead of baling.

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"We cut the hay in mid- to late-October. Once it settles down in the windrows, it stays put in the wind," he says. "We have done this for a couple of years and it's working very well for us. We're planning to increase the acreage left in windrows."

Kossler says it's important to have protein levels checked in standing grass/alfalfa during the winter as protein levels drop. Windrows hold protein levels at about 9% while standing grass/alfalfa protein levels typically drop to about 3%.

The ranch employs three full-time and four part-time workers. Kossler says that by cutting down on time spent haying and feeding, employees are now able to spend more time performing other work, including fencing, equipment repairs and improvements around the ranch.

Grazing Plan Leads To Vigorous Plant Growth

Mike Kossler says once he performed an inventory of ranch resources he quickly determined that continuous grazing was hurting the health of grasses, legumes and other plants, especially in creek bottoms where cattle tended to concentrate.

"They were eating the Schwan's ice cream and leaving the broccoli. They were overgrazing some areas and not utilizing other areas," he says.

To cure the problem, Kossler and the owners of the Idaho ranch switched to an intensive, short-duration grazing plan on both dry and irrigated lands. They use permanent and portable electric fence, along with mostly gravity-fed water developments including a well, underground pipe and troughs. The water system cost about $14,000 but was quickly paid off when factoring in savings associated from reductions in hay cutting and feeding.

"Our new plan allows us to never impact a piece of ground for more than three days, yet it allows us to typically graze that same ground three or four times a season," Kossler says. "We try to leave about four inches of vegetation. That allows for photosynthesis to take place in the lower leaves. Because of that, we're seeing much more vigorous regrowth.

"Previous bare patches of ground are now filled in with grass and legumes, which has reduced our problem with weeds such as Canada thistle and knapweed."

Kossler says they try not to go back into pastures until there is about 10 inches of growth.

Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.