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Winter grazing viable option to offset costs

As the cold weather settles in and the snow begins to accumulate on the ground, caring for cattle through the winter months becomes one of the most expensive times of the year for input costs.

"A large percentage of a beef producers cost is feed cost. In order to control costs, that's one area they want to take a good look at," says Bill Ramsey, Pioneer Livestock Information Manager.

In this day and age, producers have to look at ways to maximize efficiency. One option is winter grazing. A viable option, it can help reduce overall input costs.

"The longer producers can keep cattle out grazing and provide a high protein supplement the better they're going to be able to control their costs," says Ramsey.

It became a survival tactic for North Dakota ranchers Henry and Janet Meyer. They run 490 cows on 8,000 acres of mostly native range, with 1,200 acres of cropland converted to forages.

After a bitter winter in 1996-97 and nearly going broke, the couple turned their ranch around by switching to winter grazing and selecting hardier cattle.

Their input costs have plunged with winter grazing. "Our annual out-of-pocket feed costs are between $180 and $220 per cow," says Meyer.

"That's about half of what the average North Dakota beef producer spends to feed one cow in a year."

Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension rangeland specialist, cautions that while winter grazing is a viable alternative to reducing input costs, producers have to be mindful that they are not sacrificing forage production in order to feed cattle.

"Studies in Nebraska and Montana suggest that winter grazing is more economically viable than feeding cattle hay in winter," says Sedivec.

However, costs and returns of winter grazing hinge primarily on whether or not the ranch can accommodate the forage loss that occurs when stockpiling standing forage in reserve for grazing animals during winter months.

"Grass production peaks in midsummer, and plants naturally lose tissue with maturation," explains Sedivec. "By letting the plants stand as stockpiled feed, you not only give up forage quality, but lose about half of the standing feed."

Sedivec offers three key components to successful stockpiling.

Graze in mid- to late June. "The grazing stimulates tillering in regrowth, producing more grass for winter grazing," says Sedivec. "Avoid grazing in early June because many grasses are still storing carbohydrates for growth. Grazing during that time can suppress regrowth."

Pay attention to grass type. "Range that provides the best winter pastures has high levels of blue grama and prairie sandreed," he explains. "These grasses hold their nutritional quality well over winter." Both species are adapted to arid and semiarid regions.

Watch for overgrazing. Because cool-season grasses actually grow all winter long, they suffer when winter pastures are overgrazed. "If you overgraze a winter pasture year after year, you can eventually change the species makeup from cool-season to warm-season grasses," he says.

To sustain health of winter-grazed pastures, leave standing biomass and rotate some pastures out of winter-grazing sequence into summer-grazing pattern, giving cool-season grasses a rest.

Ramsey adds that while you are reducing input costs, don't jeopordize the cow's body condition. He emphasizes that cattle performance will suffer if either nutrition or health is deficient.

"A cow's health and nutrition are so tied together that I would recommend producers work closely with their local veterinarian to develop a comprehensive nutrition and health program," he says.

As the cold weather settles in and the snow begins to accumulate on the ground, caring for cattle through the winter months becomes one of the most expensive times of the year for input costs.

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