Make Hay When The Sun Shines — Or Not

Why make hay?

At first blush, the answer to the question U.S. grazing consultant put to producers attending the recent Manitoba Grazing School was so obvious a teenager could answer it.

Well duh – we make hay to feed livestock through the winter (stupid.)

Nobody really thinks about it, other than to manage the mechanics of getting the job done and determining how much needs to be stockpiled. It’s just one of those seasonal rituals on any farm with grazing stock.

But then came the kicker. Why do producers bring feed to their cattle, Jim Gerrish asked his audience, citing statistics that show producers in Manitoba, Minnesota and Missouri feed about 130 days a year.

He’s convinced they don’t need to, not even in Manitoba with its long winters and relatively short summers. And certainly not in Missouri, which he calls “the garden of Eden” of grazing. “They can graze 365 days a year.”

So why don’t they? Gerrish says it is because making hay is too easy.

His answer won’t sit well with anyone who has put in a long, hot afternoon making or moving hay. But he’s right, relatively speaking.

With the advent of the large round balers in the 1970s, haying became a one-man system. “When we were working with small square bales, people did not feed cattle for 130 days,” he notes.

There’s nothing wrong with machinery and systems that make life a little easier on the farm – as long as they are economical too.

But the baler that sold for $4,200 in 1973 now sells for nearly $40,000. Fuel prices have climbed, labour costs are higher. So is twine. “Most of our inputs have increased tenfold,” Gerrish said.

Meanwhile, beef prices are only 2-1/2 times what farmers received in the 1970s – which comes back to his question: why make hay?

“It made perfect sense in 1973 to do this, but it doesn’t make sense today,” Gerrish said.

To make a long story short, if farmers did an honest accounting of what it costs to put up hay, most would find they can buy it for less than they can make it. In fact, if producers feel they must feed hay to their cattle, they are better to buy their hay because they’re getting the fertilizer thrown in for free. “When you buy hay, you are buying fertility… thus the best way of building up poor land is by buying hay,” he says.

Of course, it would be impractical and somewhat counterproductive for every beef farmer in this province to look to the neighbours for a winter hay supply. And this has obvious implications for the people selling hay in this province. If Gerrish is correct, they’re selling themselves short.

Gerrish’s focus is on prodding cattle producers to move their operations towards extended grazing systems, which cost about 33 cents a day per animal to maintain as opposed to stored feed at $1.33 per day. Every day the grazing season is extended is reducing the producer’s single largest per-unit production cost.

Maybe we can’t graze all year round in Manitoba. The question, however, is why more producers aren’t grazing longer.

It seems old habits die hard. He cites a U.S. survey in which 99 per cent of producers agreed that extended grazing systems were a good strategy. But only 55 per cent said they were prepared to do anything about it.

We suspect similar numbers would emerge if a survey were conducted of those of us who have resolved to live a healthier lifestyle this new year.

Even when it makes sense, it’s tough to change. It’s easier just to buy new clothes.

On the farm, often the easiest thing to do is buy more cows or take on more acres. The deciding question more often than not is whether the farmer can cash flow the decision, as opposed to whether it will actually make more money.

Gerrish sees this attitude prevail in the cow-calf business. Farmers lean towards increasing their income as opposed to reducing their costs per unit of production.

“You’re already losing $100 per cow, so let’s go out and get 200 more and see how that works out.”

We wonder what answers might emerge if farmers involved in other agricultural enterprises applied a similar analysis. It’s a safe bet the cost of producing grains and oilseeds has risen similarly to beef, without the corresponding increase in returns.

Are we factoring in the water and lost nutrients when grain is exported off the farm? Does it make sense, really, to buy that quarter section and brand new equipment, or is leasing the better way to go?

The shift from traditional tillage practices to minimum and zero till is an example of the kind of revolution that can occur when farmers start thinking about what they do in a different way. But it took years and a concerted effort by those who believed in the idea to prove that it is possible to eliminate soil erosion as well as save on labour and fuel.

The economics of farming are in a constant state of flux. Make 2011 a year of critical analysis of your operating practices. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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