New innovation will make your haystacks grow!

Have you ever heard of a rancher giving his cows all the hay they will need for the entire winter on December 1?  Of course not, they would waste way too much of it.  Instead, cattlemen will spend lots of money to be more efficient at feeding harvested feeds.  It bothers us ranchers to see cows wasting a bunch of hay in the winter.  That's because we worked dang hard getting that hay put up, racing the thunderstorm to get it baled before the rain.  Then we had to fight the cold weather and the gelled-up tractor to get it hauled out to them, and now they are just pooping all over it and standing at the gate wanting some of that second-cutting alfalfa they know is in the yard.  Ungrateful cows!  So we buy bale rings, bale processors, feed wagons, feed-efficient bulls, etc in order to cut that winter feed bill.  Some solutions are cheap(er) such as bale rings (but the "haysaver" bale rings cost more, of course!).  Others are expensive to buy, and expensive to operate, such as grinders and processors.  And yes, these things help efficiency.  But none of those things make the haystack actually get bigger.  Few of them make the cattle healthier or gain weight better.  All decline in value over time. 

There's another "innovation" out there to increase feeding efficiency.  This innovation has the potential to do the following:

– decrease feeding losses by up to 30%
– increase animal performance
– increase the size of your feed pile (yep, you read that right!)
– make your feed stocks less suceptible to drought

Before I reveal this ground-breaking innovation, how much do you think that would be worth?  INCREASE the size of your hay pile?  That's crazy talk!  Less affected by drought?  30% less feed waste?  What kind of miracle machine or tool are we dealing with?   Where's the nearest dealer?

The tool is a really old one.  It's called "fence" and "water".  (Ok it's really two tools.)

Let's go back to that dumb rancher who gave his cows the whole winter's worth of hay on December 1.  How short-sighted of him!  Yet, how many neighbors do you have that do the exact same thing with their summer "feed"?  You see, the same rules apply – plus a few new ones. 

Fence and water allow you to restrict what cattle have access to.  Controlling the availability of forage the cattle have access to makes them eat things they might not otherwise.  This is akin to only feeding your cows a day or two's worth of hay during the winter.  You want them to "clean up" their plate before you give them more.  Same thing applies on pasture.  Season-long grazing averages around 20-25% harvest efficiency (that means the cow actually only eats 20-25% of the production).  The rest gets over-mature or pooped on.  That 20-25% probably comes from the same plants being grazed over and over again, weakening their root systems.  More intesnive grazing systems can have harvest efficiencies of 40-60% without damaging the plants being consumed.  The reason is that the plant has adequate time to recover before being eaten again, unlike the plant that is bitten off over and over again in the season-long system. 

Fence and water also allow us to place cattle in the right place at the right time, and keep the cattle from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  By allowing pastures adequate rest between grazing events, the quality of the feed goes up.  There will be less overly mature, unpalatable grasses.  The amount of feed increases as well, because the plants are able to develop more extensive root systems.  (This is where your "feed pile" actually gets bigger!).  When the grass has a chance to rest, it can compete with weed pressure better as well.  More developed roots allow them to weather droughts better, and absorb more moisture in wet years. 

Fence and water tanks decline in value over time too, just like other feeding equipment.  However, they increase the value of the land by helping the rancher to grow more grass and to harvest it more efficiently.  And they can cost substantially less than winter feeding equipment.  I would argue that a dollar wisely spent on summer "feeding equipment" could return ten times more than the same dollar spent on winter feeding equipment.

I hope more cattlemen start viewing their summer grass with the same attitude they do their winter hay.  It has the potential to be a real game-changer for many operations.

Step one in making things better: Realize it is possible

Last week, dad and I were in San Antonio for the Cattle Industry Convention And NCBA Trade Show. We were invited as part of the Environmental Stewardship Award Program.  We had been named as the Region VII winner of the program. What we didn't know was that this week, we would also be named the winner of the national award as well.


We were shocked. The other regional winners were very deserving of receiving the honor too, and are each doing great work and sharing the message of stewardship in their areas of influence.  I would not consider us to be in any way "better" than any of them.  It is an honor to be associated with such outstanding people.


I was visiting with a gentleman after the award ceremony.  He had told me that hearing about what we do encouraged and inspired him to continue improving his own operation. I was quick to tell him that we don't have it all figured out, and that we see room for our own improvement as well.  Then he offered his observations about people who win these kinds of awards.  He said they are very often quite humble about what they are doing, and that I was not an exception. I thought about this later, and I came to the conclusion that he's right in his premise. Why? Because I think it takes a humble attitude to come to grips with the idea that things could be better, that I really don't have all the answers, and that I need to find people smarter and more creative or experienced than myself that can help me improve.  


I don't believe that we will ever "arrive" at the place where we have it all figured out. I think we are on the right track generally. But I don't think there's a destination at which we stop moving.  Proverbs talks about wise and foolish people. Wise people do things like seek wise counsel, accept criticism when it is warranted, and think about the future. Foolish people think only in the short-term, listen to what they want to hear, and mock the wise. There is a difference in the heart and character between the wise and the foolish.  Don't know about anyone else, but wise seems like the way to go.


I've had the question from several media people in the last couple days, what has been the most important thing in your success?   I think I've been answering wrong. I usually say something about water development, cross fencing, short-duration grazing, etc. I think the answer really is that we've come to grips with the fact that we don't know everything. We are constantly learning, trying to gain knowledge and wisdom.  


An exciting aspect of being recognized is that we will now have the opportunity to interact with more people about some of the things we do in fact know…that cattle are a critical part of a healthy ecosystem, that beef is a part of a healthy diet, and about some practices we have implemented on our ranch and how well (or not well) they worked. Equally as exciting is being able to learn as we meet people with new ideas and concepts we have not been around before.


It should be an interesting year!

Our fleet of tanks is expanding…

…water tanks, that is.

We are realizing that the limiting factor for us in our grazing management continues to be water.  We can't change how much falls from the sky (even though we do have influence over how much soaks in – see our Water Management page), but we do have the ability to distribute drinking water for the cattle.  We decided to try some alternatives to the big tire tanks that we usually install.  Those are wonderful watering arrangements in most situations, but we wanted to try something a little less permanent and with a little quicker setup time. 

The two rectangular fiberglass tanks are made by Montana Fiberglass.  They each hold about 1165 gallons.  The tanks are situated on a temporary crossfence.  The yellow plastic handles on either end of the guardrail anchor the fence.  A strand of insulated wire connects the two fences to carry power from one side to the other.

The tanks are fed from a well about 1.5 miles away.  We had an existing water line (1.5" PVC six feet deep) buried in the area, so we tapped into it for this setup. The 450 feet between the buried line and the tanks is 1.25" HDPE rated at 160 PSI laying on top of the ground.  An Apex XtraFlo valve is installed in each tank.  They are a cost-effective valve that requires only 1.5" drop in water level to acheive full-flow.  This is intended to be used only for summer use.  The above-ground water line and exposed tank valves would not do well with our South Dakota winters.

We used guard rail to keep the livestock from crawling into the tank.  Angle iron brackets attached the end pieces to the side pieces.  There is room for animals to drink on all four sides.

The 1.25" HDPE pipe is seen coming into the tanks here.  Also, you can see the black insulated wire running along the guardrail.  This carries the power across the tank for the electric fence tied on to each side.  I did it this way to protect the water from being energized in the event of a break in the fence.


Here's another setup I did for our yearlings.  It's a smaller herd, thus the size of tank is much smaller.  This handles 110 head of yearlings easily with the 5 gallons per minute delivered by our rural water service.

The 9' Sioux poly tank holds about 950 gallons.  It is fed by about 1400 ft connected to our rural water system by 1.5" HDPE rated at 200PSI.  I have a little more work to do here.  I plan to install two 90 degree elbows next to the tank so it is not just hanging in the air as it is now.


This tank is also regulated by an Apex XtraFlo valve.  However, this is a top-fill setup.  The brass rod I used did not come with the valve, but it works.  Another metal clamp like the one shown here attaches the pipe to the post as the pipe comes over the edge of the tank.


There's already been modifications to each of these arrangements, and there's sure to be more as we work out the kinks.  It's fun implementing some "rancher engineering" on these projects.  About the time we get this right, we'll probably hatch a new idea that might work even better.


Update: Both of these setups worked well.  The yellow poly tank was used to water 110 yearlings with no problems.  The twin fiberglass tanks watered 240 cow/calf pairs, but we did have some issues with an elbow fitting coming loose.  Once that was resolved, it worked well.  The lesson we learned was to make sure you have snug-fitting components.  I usually have to use a small propane torch to heat up the pipe so it has enough stretch for the barbed end of the fitting to be inserted.  If I don't need the torch, then it's likely that the fitting will leak or come apart all together.