The great Bud Williams used to stress that a grazier's resource inventory consists of forage, livestock and money.
I’ll add that the most profitable rancher, oil wells excluded, will be the one who does the best long-term job of turning forage and livestock into money.
For most of us this will entail presenting the proper number (stocking rate) of the right kind of animals (stocking mix) with the correct type of forage, in the appropriate time frame.
To be able to do this means that we must have certain knowledge and must do several things well.
1. We need to understand the composition of our forage base. How much do we have, how good is it, how reliable is it, and when is it available.
2. How much of that forage is stocker or dairy/fattening quality and how much is cow maintenance quality?
3. Should sheep and/or goats be part of the stocking mix and if so at what percentage of the total stocking rate? Sheep and goats will normally make the best use of forbs (weeds) and browse (brush), while cattle prefer mostly grass.
4. What is the best use for your operation of what you have available? The range of options will depend upon several factors, including knowledge and likes and dislikes of the operator.
5. But the prime determining factors in deciding on a stocking rate and a stocking mix will be the amount, type and timing of forage growth and how effective grazing management is in converting solar energy, first into plant energy and then into animal energy.
Another extremely important factor we sometimes overlook is the likelihood of drought. We can’t prevent drought but planning can reduce its ecological and financial damage. The effectiveness of a drought plan will depend on how well the plan matches the probability of drought and how early in a drought it is implemented. Trying to feed your way out of a drought seldom is successful and is always costly to financial and ecological health.
If profit is a goal, rationing out the available forage to the kind and number of animals best suited to the forage type and quality is more apt to be successful than is stocking with animals which must be heavily supplemented because the forage does not meet their needs.
The cheapest supplement is the one you do not have to buy.
Forage quality and quantity both vary during the year so timing of demand, determined by the number and kind of animals, is critical. For example:
• Animals with high nutritional needs should receive the highest quality feed, provided they can convert it into profitable production.
• Periods of heavy nutrient demand should be scheduled to coincide with periods of high forage production.
Ranchers cannot always control the supply of forage but they can control the demand for forage by manipulating animal numbers and weights.
Planning cuts supplement
The ability to need very little supplement, along with the costs it incurs, comes about through planning.
It is usually more successful to plan to have animals whose needs fit what is available in the pasture than to change the pasture or provide large amounts of nutrients from outside. The exception to this is changing the forage through grazing management.
The need to feed large amounts of hay or other supplements is a signal that beneficial changes in management are needed. Rationing out forage with short graze periods can dramatically increase the amount of gain produced by a given area of forage while improving animal performance. This works in both the growing season and the dormant season and greatly reduces the need for supplements.
The short graze periods prevent plants from being overgrazed which would mean their new regrowth was being bitten off.
It is good husbandry and good business if you plan to have the type and number of animals on hand that suit the forage available and then constantly monitor forage utilization, forage growth and animal performance.
The cheapest gain will always be that made by animals harvesting their ration by grazing. Supplementation can pay when it is needed. In most areas animals at least need minerals and salt. Protein can pay off well for growing animals during the dormant season or to increase digestion of low-quality forage but beware! It is very easy to cross over from supplementation to substitution. Anything substituted for forage in the pasture will likely raise your cost of gain.