Put more jingle in your jeans this winter

Shopping around, alternative feeds, and how you store your hay can make a huge difference to the bottom line

With cattle prices off their record highs, many producers are sharpening their pencils.

And it can be well worth it.

“We have to watch our input costs — that’s the one thing we can control,” said Dean Dyck, a farm business management specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“If our incomes go up but our expenses go up, we’re not making money. You’ve got to know your costs.”

Yardage tends to be neglected in budgeting, said Dyck, who spoke at Clearwater County’s Cattlemen’s Day in late November. Producers need to factor in costs such as labour, medication, processing, repairs, and taxes.

Around $1.20 per head per day is a reasonable estimate for yardage, but producers usually lowball budget yardage costs, he said.

“A lot of guys look at 90 cents or $1 per head per day in yardage, but that needs to get priced in for profit,” he said. “Yardage can vary a lot from operation to operation, and one size doesn’t fit all. Use your own numbers and do your own math to figure it out.”

Winter feeding accounts for roughly 40 per cent of costs — on average, about $2.60 per head per day, said Dyck.

“For every $5 a tonne that hay goes up, your cost per day increases three cents per head per day. A 10-cents-per-bushel increase in barley prices results in a cost-per-day increase of two cents per head.”

So shopping around for better prices can have a major impact.

“If you can get straw at $35 a bale, barley at $3.38 a bushel, and hay at seven cents a pound, you’re now down to $2.33 a head per day,” said Dyck.

Producers should also consider lower-quality feeds when it makes sense, added provincial beef forage specialist Barry Yaremcio.

For instance, feeding a straight hay ration over 225 days works out to about $1,023 a cow, but a ration of straw and grain prior to calving drops that cost to around $684 a head.

“There’s about a $350 savings if you want to look at slough hay or some poor-quality forages that are less expensive than hay,” said Yaremcio. “In a 275-head cow herd, that’s almost $100,000.”

Reducing waste

But producers need to be careful when dropping the quality of their feed over the winter, he cautioned.

Barry Yaremcio

Barry Yaremcio

“The nutrient content of straw is so low that I feel there should be little or no straw in an after-calving ration,” said Yaremcio. “It’s just too low of quality — not enough energy, not enough protein. Your cows will lose weight and they won’t milk properly.”

So how can producers reduce waste and maintain feed quality over the winter?

It starts with stacking.

“The pyramid stack is probably the worst way to store the hay,” said Yaremcio. “With the pyramid stack, typically what happens when you get snow or water, it leaks all the way down the bales to the bottom.

“Wherever those two bales are touching and water hits, that’s where you’re going to get the spoilage.”

The mushroom stack — where one bale is placed on its side atop another bale — is better, but the best bet is not stacking at all.

“If you have the space and you can stack the bales in single rows, leaving six to 10 inches between the bales so they’re not touching, that’s going to minimize your waste,” said Yaremcio.

Producers also need to look at how they’re feeding. With a bale processor, producers can expect around 19 per cent waste.

“The fine material — the high-quality material, the cream of the crop — that’s what they were leaving behind. We lost 30 per cent protein and 23 per cent of the calcium out of that feed.”

Simply unrolling a bale results in around 12 per cent waste, while bale feeders are anywhere between three to 20 per cent, depending on the feeder.

“If it gets outside the feeder and they start stepping on it, it’s very expensive bedding,” said Yaremcio.

“If you’re using a bale processor or putting silage out, put it in tubs or tires or any kind of feeder — anything that will prevent the cows from walking over the feed.

“That’s going to save you big dollars, around $250 on feed waste alone.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.


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