Ranchers seeks inventive ways to limit hay expenses
By JOHN O'CONNELL
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- High feed prices prompted Gary Dixon to experiment with planting a crop this fall specifically for his cattle to graze.
In the past, the Idaho Falls farmer and rancher has watered his barley after harvest and his alfalfa after the final cutting, turning his cattle loose on the fields to feed on the limited regrowth before starting them on hay.
This year, Dixon and other farmers in eastern Idaho did the math and concluded it would pay to invest more in their winter pasture.
After harvesting his barley, he spread another 40 pounds per acre of barley seed and 5 pounds per acre of turnip seed, taking the time to harrow the ground. He also applied 30 units of nitrogen and watered his crop.
The result is a thick stand with roughly an eighth of a ton per acre more feed on his pasture than he's had in the past. He acknowledged he overseeded the barley, which has choked out his turnips. He estimates he invested an extra $36 per acre in the feed crop, not counting irrigation.
"In the past when hay was $60 to $70 per ton, it didn't mean as much as it does today when hay is $180 per ton," Dixon said of his winter pasture. "We're just trying to build some fall feed here to keep the cows out of the haystack."
Dixon believes the turnips will provide a secondary benefit by breaking up the hard-packed soil with their deep roots. Next season, he intends to plant a more diverse mixture for his cattle that should also maximize soil benefits, with legumes to help fix nitrogen. He anticipates planting a turnip, radish, dry pea, clover and vetch mixture.
The manager of a neighboring farm and ranch, Rick Passey, also spread seed for the first time this season to bolster winter pasture for his cattle. After harvesting wheat, Passey spread a mixture of about 7,000 pounds of barley and about 700 pounds of wheat throughout the 160-acre field, rather than relying on wheat regrowth alone. He also harrowed the land, irrigated it and applied 45 units of nitrogen.
He expects to more than double the return on investment by delaying hay feeding for the operation's 250 cattle.
"If it saves us three weeks, $16,800 would be what it would cost us to feed hay instead of pasture," Passey said. "On years when hay is worth $80, you probably wouldn't do it."