Ranch manager Joel Vaad shifted to later calving and made other adjustments after carefully analyzing his options for reducing feed costs and boosting returns at the Maxwell Ranch near Livermore, Colo.
The Maxwell Ranch is owned by the Colorado State University Research Foundation but receives no funding from the university and operates as a commercial ranch. The ranch runs about 330 cows on 12,000 acres of northern Colorado foothills — dry country where Vaad says he needs about 40 acres to support each cow-calf pair through the year.
For decades, the ranch operated with a typical February–March calving season, which Vaad says worked fine when feed prices were lower. The ranch does not produce any hay and historically had purchased hay for winter feeding. Back in the 1990s, with hay prices around $60 per ton, Vaad says it cost around $110 per cow for winter feed. But as we know, feed prices escalated over the past decade, and in 2007, with alfalfa priced at $150 per ton, winter feed costs at the Maxwell jumped to $262 per cow. That’s when Vaad decided something needed to change.
He spent considerable time researching options for the ranch. Consulting with university scientists and Extension specialists, veterinarians, marketing representatives and others, he decided to propose a later calving season. Among other advantages, he believed later calving would allow 12-month grazing and a significant reduction in late-winter feeding, as cows could regain body condition on spring forage during the critical periods of late gestation, calving and lactation.
A change of that magnitude required approval from the CSU Research Foundation’s board, so he conducted a detailed economic analysis of three calving seasons: February–March, April–May and May–June. He compared the effects of high and low calf and feed prices in each scenario, and on paper, the May–June calving season provided the highest returns.
He proposed the change to the board and gained approval, and in 2009 waited until the end of July, rather than the first of May, to turn the bulls in with the cows.
That fall, Vaad cut back his hay purchases dramatically, planning to feed alfalfa hay just as a protein supplement during February, March and April, rather than as the primary feed through calving season. He also keeps some extra hay on hand as emergency feed in case of a winter storm.
In addition to being the most cost-effective protein supplement, Vaad says, alfalfa provides the opportunity to feed large quantities just two times per week. This allows all the cows access, instead of some dominant cows consuming most of the supplement, and it also saves fuel.