Let’s change a little piece of our world. I’m speaking, of course, about reducing our feed costs.
Most articles about making changes tend to focus on tiny portions of our world: acidosis, mineral deficiencies, fiber digestion, etc. But this month, let’s step out of the weeds. Instead, let’s look at the big picture about making money with sheep – namely, finding ways of reducing feed costs. Why? Because feed costs comprise 60% to 80% of the typical farm budget. If we can reduce those costs by 20% or even 10%, it will happily lower our break-even price (the price that covers all costs before we see a profit).
Feed expenses are more than just the out-of-pocket cash for hay, grain and minerals. Think of the barns and bins and silos to store the feed, the labor to feed the feed, the labor to haul away bedding and manure, and all the equipment to do these tasks. If you make hay or silage, include the costs of harvesting, the fertilizer to grow the forage and replace the soil nutrients hauled off the field in the hay. These really add up quickly.
Farm surveys have consistently shown that the average livestock operation feeds hay or silage for more than 145 days each year. That’s nearly 40% of the year, and not just in Maine and South Dakota, with their legendary winters, but also in warmer climes like Arkansas and North Carolina. And in some Northern regions, that number can be as high as 200 days. Wow. Forage doesn’t grow all year, of course, and the periods it doesn’t grow are “feed holes.” We use stored feeds to plug these feed holes.
So let’s cut to the chase. The biggest way we can reduce feed costs is to stop feeding stored feeds, or at least reduce the amount. How? Well, we can take advantage of a universally accepted scientific principle: Sheep have four legs – which means they can walk to their feed and graze in the fields. Grazing costs much less than feeding stored feeds, even with the grazing expenses such as fencing, predators, parasites and the labor to move animals from pasture to pasture.
So let’s look at some possible ways of using this principle.
First, pull out your calendar and draw horizontal lines through all the weeks when you feed hay or silage. This gives you a visual map of the expensive feed periods of the year – your feed holes. In most regions, these will be in late fall, winter and early spring. But in some regions, they may occur in the dry midsummer. In any case, our goal is to shorten these horizontal lines.
Second, make a clear-eyed appraisal of all your fields, including any rented fields. For each field, what is its potential for growing forage? Take soil tests from every field. Are there any fields that don’t yield well? Why not? Do you have any south-facing slopes that warm up earlier in the spring? Any poorly drained fields? Although wet fields may be impossible to use in the spring, they may retain precious soil moisture later into a dry summer. Can you capitalize on this feature by planting warm-season grasses and heat-loving legumes?
Now to plug those feed holes. We have two basic strategies to fill them: grow forages during periods when they usually don’t grow, and adjust the livestock calendar so the animals don’t need as much stored forage during those feed holes, particularly in the winter.
Strategy No. 1: Grow more forages
As the saying goes, anyone can grow forage in May, but grazable forage during the winter, early spring, late fall and during the summer slump is worth its weight in gold. Providing grazable forage during those times takes skill.
Skilled craftsmen know that the right tool makes a huge difference. Good graziers are skilled craftsmen. Our tools are forages, and we have lots of them.
Perennial forages include grasses, legumes and herbs like chicory and plantain. Perennial forages can be long term or short term. Grasses come in two main flavors: cool-season (C3) and warm-season (C4). The main principle here is that every field on your place can be planted with different mixtures of species. Select forage species strategically to give you the most out-of-season growth. Learn about their characteristics, take advantage of their strengths, know their weaknesses. There are big charts and long treatises on the various forages. Take the time to study them.
And we shouldn’t overlook the annual forages. These can be powerful tools. They may cost more to plant, but they can fit into the calendar when you need them. Again, we have grasses, legumes and forbs. (Forbs is the botanical category for “miscellaneous.”) Annual ryegrass, anyone? And the many annual legumes. Think of warm-season grasses like sorghum-sudangrass, corn, millet and teff. These have now been bred with some very attractive traits. The other big family here is the brassicas. The new hybrid varieties of leafy turnip, kale, rape and radish will provide multiple rounds of grazing across one year, even as standing forage into the winter. Also, the small grains can provide very early grazing. And some annuals like Italian ryegrass and winter wheat, when planted after the last frost, can provide two years of vegetative forage rather than one.
Here’s another technique: fertilizer. Stressed plants tend to go to seed earlier than well-nourished forages. Know your field’s fertility and apply the nutrients you need, especially nitrogen. Good fertility may add weeks of high-quality vegetative growth to a field.
Here’s a technique that's been around for a long time: stockpiling. Classically, this is done with tall fescue to provide standing forage into the winter. Tall fescue stands up well in the snow. Basically, fertilize the field in the midsummer, close the gate, let it grow, then strip-graze the standing forage after the killing frost. With good planning, you can have fair-quality forage through Christmas.
Have you heard of swath grazing (sometimes called windrow grazing)? Select an annual capable of huge growth, like barley, oats or triticale. Plant it in the summer, fertilize it well and let it grow into the early fall. Then cut it like hay, but don’t make hay. Just let it lay in the swaths (windrows), 3 to 4 feet wide and not too deep. Then in the late fall and winter, use electric fence and move the livestock across the field to graze one swath at a time. Of course, swath grazing only works on frozen ground. Warmer climates with mud need not apply.
Speaking of frozen ground … frozen ground is also a perfect opportunity for bale grazing. Arrange bales in a nice grid with at least 30 feet between the bales. Then, during the winter, strategically use electric fence or netting to allow livestock to graze one bale at a time. True, there will be a lot of waste, but it’s not really waste. Trampled forage just becomes more soil organic matter, which has definite economic value. Bale gazing works well on frozen ground in the winter, but don’t discount areas of hot dry summers. Bale grazing on a bone-dry summer field will accomplish the same thing.
Strategy No. 2: Change the livestock calendar
Here is the critical question for any sheep operation: When do you lamb? Because the lambing date defines the entire year’s feed requirements. Winter lambing means that late gestation and early lactation – which require high-quality forage – occur during the winter. In contrast, spring lambing makes it easier to meet the nutrient requirements by grazing high-quality forages and gives you more options for grazing outdoors in the winter: stockpiling, swath grazing, bale grazing, etc. – where the ewes can walk to their feed and thrive nutritionally with lower-quality forage.
Let’s come back to those 145 days of stored feed or whatever your number is. In practice, you may not be able to eliminate all of them, but you can chip away a little every year. If you can cut off only two weeks each year, that’s 14 days. If you do this for five years, that’s 70 days – nearly a 50% reduction of stored feed. Not bad.
Which reminds me of the classic instructions on how to carve a granite statue of a horse. Start with a huge granite boulder and cut away anything that doesn’t look like a horse.
So, on your place, which fields don’t look like a horse? Or a sheep?