Even with calf prices at record-high levels, the cost of feeding cows though a long, hard winter can take a big bite out of cow-calf profits. George Kahrl spends a lot of time thinking about those costs, and he has found ways to graze more, feed less and control supplement costs while maintaining cow performance on his Montana ranch.

Kahrl owns the Sarah Faith Ranch, a 600-cow operation on 28,000 acres in central Montana’s Missouri River valley. He says he tries to keep his feeding program as grass-based as possible, grazing cows on forage for most of the year. In the past, like most producers in the area, he fed cows hay and supplements from about New Year’s through spring turnout around the first week of May. In central Montana, the growing season for most forage is only about 90 days from May through July, so the keys to extending grazing, Kahrl says, are to plan ahead, develop a grazing program based on 12 months of forage availability and make better use of dormant forage. “I needed more standing feed, which meant changing pasture practices.”

When CRP contracts expired on some of the ranch acreage, he considered the non-native forage as a means of extending the grazing season. Native range in the area typically is covered in deep snow well into spring, but the CRP ground includes wheat grasses and other taller forages that stand up through winter snow, then melt out and green up earlier. 

Kahrl cuts hay from the CRP land but leaves strips of standing forage by cutting two swaths and leaving two standing. This leaves 24-foot strips, perpendicular to the wind, to catch snow and conserve moisture while providing dormant forage for winter and early spring grazing. He rotates haying such that each strip is cut one year and grazed the next. In the spring, cows and calves grazing these pastures have a selection of old forage and fresh green grass.

Kahrl now stops feeding hay to cows around the first of April, eliminating a full month of feeding at substantial cash savings. He says his hay price averages around $70 per ton, or about 3.5 cents per pound. He calculates that with cows eating 30 pounds of hay per day, full feed costs about $1 per head per day, or $600 per day for the herd. Dropping a month of full feed saves the ranch about $18,000.

Kahrl prefers using alfalfa hay, at 15 to 18 percent protein, rather than grain-based protein supplements during the winter. He uses the alfalfa to supplement winter forage before going on full feed of grass and alfalfa hay. The alfalfa hay serves as a protein supplement with winter forage, especially for young cows that need more protein than provided by the grass hay he harvests on the ranch.

One of the main reasons for feeding protein, he says, is to support rumen microbes, helping the animal better utilize roughage. He says alfalfa hay in his area provides the lowest cost per pound of protein, while also benefiting cows with a natural, forage-based protein source. “I have tried several different supplements, liquid tubs, blocks, cake, and high-quality hay,” he says, adding that he has discussed nutritional needs of overwintering cattle and supplements with consulting nutritionists. “In the end, using high-quality hay has become the most cost effective and possibly the most nutritionally effective supplementation we have used.” On a protein basis, Kahrl says his alfalfa hay costs 21 cents per pound of protein, while protein cake would cost 47 cents per pound of protein, and the lick tub would run $1.45 per pound of protein.

Kahrl usually feeds hay once per day during the winter and prefers to deliver feed late in the day, saying it helps cows withstand cold nights. They graze and ruminate through the morning hours and do not appear overly anxious for their afternoon hay delivery. This winter, on sub-zero days when snow had covered standing feed, he fed half the ration in the morning and the second half in the afternoon to encourage cattle to become more active in the morning.

Body condition among groups of cows also influences adjustments to the nutritional program. “This winter, we sorted off our 3-year-olds and our ‘lights’ from the main herd and fed them separately. We wanted to increase the body condition on that group of cattle from an average of BCS 4.5 in December to BCS 5 in March when we start calving,” he says. “It is not an easy task to raise BCS through mid winter, especially this winter, but we did it with great success by using alfalfa hay as the supplement.”

Kahrl also takes a frugal approach toward managing replacement heifers. He overwinters more heifers than he needs for replacements and backgrounds them on hay fed in the pasture through the winter, shifting to full grazing on CRP pastures in early April. They stay in good condition but do not grow overly fleshy, he says, and conception rates consistently run above 80 percent with a 30-day breeding season. After breeding, he sorts off open heifers to sell as feeder cattle, and their thinner condition adds to their market value.

Kahrl has marketed calves in different ways at different times, but the past couple of years he has contracted them in early spring, setting a price for fall delivery. His grass-based, natural program, along with source verification and animal ID, satisfy repeat customers who bid competitively on his calf contracts. He already has contracted this year’s steer calves for fall delivery at 570 pounds for $135 per hundredweight. In setting a calf price, he knows his efforts to reduce production costs translate to higher profits. “I am not a scientist, but from a lay perspective, if I can feed my cattle in a way which works the best for their natural system as ruminants, I’ll receive the greatest benefit in our grass-based commercial cow operation.”