Cows at Home on the Range for the Holidays

A Christmas snow falls gently to the frozen ground.  You know the type I am thinking of–big fluffy flakes that sparkle as they gently land on tree branches, grass blades, and the backs of the furry cows heavy with calf.  It’s the kind of snow that you can catch on your tongue and clings to your eyelashes.  This kind of snow rarely happens where I come from in the windy patch of East Central Wyoming.  Usually snow blows in sideways as tiny hard flakes that sting as they beat across the exposed skin of your face.  I relish in the quietness of the morning and listen to the quiet snorts of hungry cattle as they contentedly sift their way through the green alfalfa hay, looking for the tastiest morsels.  A few call out with low moos to their friends, sharing a holiday greeting or a gentle good morning.  It sure feels good to be home on the range for the holidays.

Cows dine on good quality hay as snow falls in Wyoming (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

Cows dine on good quality hay as snow falls in Wyoming (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

 

A plan to provide sufficient nutrition to cattle and other livestock in the winter is key to maintain healthy animals that can survive weather, calving, and rebreeding.  Animals need to go into the winter in fairly good condition and receive good maintenance throughout to ensure a successful calf crop and rebreed period in the spring/summer. The majority of cattle that do not rebreed each season is due to inadequate fall and winter nutrition.  Most nutrition plans involve adding a trace-mineral supplement to native pastures and possibly a protein supplement if native grasses become too dry.  If native grasses are not available due to drought, overgrazing, or crusted over snow cover, ranchers will need to provide other means of nutrition through harvested good quality forages.  Other times to supplement cattle, are on very cold and windy days where nutritional needs are higher due to wind chills.  During these extremely cold times, cows should be given all the hay they will clean up and access to windbreaks is very important.

A rancher supplements his cattle during periods when grasses lack nutritional value (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

A rancher supplements his cattle during periods when grasses lack nutritional value (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

 

If pastures are managed property, most cattle will not lose weight in the fall and into the winter.  Cattle actually generally gain weight, after the weaning of the calves and go into winter with fat reserves.  However these properly maintained forages can be deficient in trace minerals.  Salt should almost always be provided.  As well as fresh, clean water.  Many times the mineral deficiencies in native range forage will greatly depend on the geographic area, so know the mineral content of your grasses and plan accordingly. Native dryland pastures do hold their mineral content  through out the winter, especially when compared to cultivated or irrigated pastures and crop residues.  Another good reason to know the mineral content of your grazed forage.

Properly managed native ranges should provide mature cattle with all the nutrition they require, except in times of extremely cold or snowy weather (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

Properly managed native ranges should provide mature cattle with all the nutrition they require, except in times of extremely cold or snowy weather (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

 

Just remember it is most profitable to match the cattle or your livestock to the feed source, whether that is native dryland grasses or crop residues, than it is to try to create a feeding program for livestock that do not do well in their own environment.  Much of the west is high in elevation and cold in temperatures.  Selecting animals that are acclimated for these areas will help your winter feeding program be economical and easy to plan.

Trees heavy with frost line a creek bottom , waiting for spring (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

Trees heavy with frost line a creek bottom , waiting for spring (Photo: Natural Resource Conservation Service).

 

My black and white, spotted, dog runs through the herd, her breathing coming out in big puffs of steam.  She smells the morning air and the cattle regard her with mild interest.  In the distance frosty trees around the homestead can be seen through the falling snow.  Clouds dip low in the sky, heavy with snow and, just like the holidays, have descended onto the ranch.

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Are we making the right decisions?

Every day, no matter who we are, we make decisions. We make a decision about what time to get up in the morning and what time to go to sleep. We decide what to eat for breakfast, whether or not to feed the livestock, do we go to work or go fishing, do we cut the hay or turn the bulls in with the cows, and I could go on and on. Each decision we make has a series of consequences that result from that decision. Even the decision to do nothing has some type of result.  I would like each of you to take a hard look at the decisions you are making. Is there a reason you are you doing XYZ or is that the way it has always been done? Do you know the actual cost or benefit of doing XYZ? Is there a better way to do XYZ? Do you absolutely love doing XYZ?

Three boys are deciding where the best fishing  hole could be (Photo: NRCS).

These three boys make what may seem like an easy decision to us, but for them it may be the hardest decision they make all day. (Photo: NRCS).

 

Sometimes I think, that as land and livestock managers we get bogged down in the rut of doing what we’ve always done. We forget to look at the bigger picture. We forget that change can be enlightening and refreshing. We get stuck in the everyday operation that is keeping the livestock alive and healthy, and the land producing grass. We have been brought up to work hard for everything we want, and there is comfort in knowing that if we work hard we will be blessed. However hard work, while satisfying, may not always be profitable.

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations of running a ranch or farm. (Photo: NRCS).

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations of running a ranch or farm. Stopping for a bit to learn or to really think about why we do the things we do could actually save us money. (Photo: NRCS).

 

I would like to challenge you to also analyze whether or not you are actually making money doing XYZ. Maybe this year you are, but is that the norm? One way to do this is through a Unit Cost of Production Analysis for each enterprise in your operation. This powerful tool can help you see where you are doing well in your business and where you may need to make improvements or changes. It is not an easy analysis. Math will be involved and it may take some time for the process to be fully learned.  Won’t it be worth it to spend some time learning to fully understand where your operation is succeeding and where it may need improving? I certainly think so. And just think, if you hate doing XYZ and it is not making you any profit, maybe you can figure out a way to not do XYZ, which will give you more time to do what you really love.

It all comes down to decisions and it may be time to answer the question:  Are we making the correct ones for ourselves and our operation?

 

Check out this video series by colleagues Dallas Mount and Aaron Berger on how to calculate a unit cost of production.  Still have questions?  Contact your local Extension Office for assistance. 

 

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