Winter is coming quickly and times are tight in the cattle business. It is crucial that producers make timely and well informed management decisions.  Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin

First things first, I’m not writing this to scold anybody… I’m just concerned.

I wrote an article for the Small Producer’s Corner section of the September issue of The Florida Cattleman and Livestock Journal (it’s a great publication,join FCA today, a subscription is covered in your Florida Cattlemen’s Association dues).  The point of the article was to encourage/remind producers to be proactive and make winter feeding plans/arrangements well in advance.

Now it’s late October, and in the past two weeks I have witnessed more than one of the scenarios I warned about (involving the costs that come with a lack of planning) play out right in front of me. I’m concerned, prices are too low, margins are too tight for planning and careful evaluation of options to not be a part of every management decision.

The original article is included below. I know it may be a little late for some of the specifics I mention, but the concept is still important – be proactive, plan ahead, make the most of the time and money you put into your operation.

Be Proactive – Make Winter Feeding Plans Now

As a small producer, you are busy; cattle are just one of the many moving pieces in your life. It takes scheduling and planning to get everything done when and as it should be. You are willing to work (or you wouldn’t have cattle); schedule, plan, and start early so your work can be as productive as possible. Small producers need to make a conscience effort to be proactive in their management. With so many other demands on your time it can be easy to push the cattle enterprise to the back burner and develop a very reactionary management style. Allowing this to happen can severely threaten the long-term viability of your operation.

Margins are very tight; the financial implications of every management decision need to be carefully evaluated. Give yourself time to make the best decision possible. Too many times I have seen small producers have management decisions dictated to them by a lack of time and options. These dictated decisions generally produce undesirable results. Thankfully they can largely be avoided by embracing a proactive management style.

While it is always a good idea to be proactive and think ahead, the implications of doing so, or not, become particularly obvious as we move into fall and winter. In terms of operating expenses, the decisions you make regarding feeding the cow herd through the cooler months are probably the biggest you’ll make all year. Be proactive, start preparing your winter feeding/supplementation plan now.

Three big items that many small producers must address while putting together a winter feeding/supplementation plan include: 1) Purchasing or making hay, 2) Supplementing conserved forages, 3) Establishing and managing cool season forages. To be done well, all three require advanced planning.

Purchasing or Making Hay

Conserved forages (hay, baleage, stockpiled grass) make up a substantial portion of most winter rations. Obviously if you are producing your own conserved forage, you’d better already be started. If you are purchasing hay, get it lined up now. Be proactive, talk with local hay producers and secure your supply. If you wait until it is time to start feeding hay to purchase it, you won’t have the option to shop around and make a good decision based on quality and price. Your decision will be dictated by product availability and you will increase your likelihood of overpaying for an inferior quality product.

Supplementing Conserved Forage

Try as you might to find quality hay, you will likely need to provide additional nutrition to lactating and/or growing animals. Meeting these additional nutritional needs in a cost-effective manner can be challenging. Available supplements (by-products, grains, liquid feed, tubs, cubes, etc.) all need to be evaluated and compared on cost per unit of nutrient (TDN and CP) basis. It can be quite a chore just identifying all the available options, not to mention doing all the math. Be proactive, contact feed suppliers to get prices and nutritional analyses of their products now. If you wait until feeding time to decide how to supplement, you’ll be in a hurry, won’t take the time to compare products, and probably end up choosing a product based on convenience rather than value. (For the sake of brevity, I did not attempt to fully address the process of comparing supplements. Feel free to contact me or your County’s UF/IFAS Extension agent for assistance or see Do the Math First Before Purchasing Feed to Supplement Hay).  

Establishing and Managing Cool Season Forages 

Especially for those of us in the northern part of the state, cool season forages can be a huge component of our winter nutrition program. All forages are not created equal – selecting the best varieties for your operation is a big part of effectively utilizing annual forages. The 2019 Cool Season Forage Variety Recommendations have been published. There is a limited supply of seed available for many of the most sought-after varieties. Be proactive, determine what will work best for your operation and contact seed suppliers to book seed very soon (different suppliers carry different varieties, it may take several tries to find what you are looking for). “It was all they had left” is not a good reason to select a variety. Be proactive and give yourself the opportunity to plant the best variety available.

There are plenty of knowledgeable people and information available to help you make sound management decisions, if you give yourself enough time to go through the process. The value of this concept applies to all aspects of your operation, not just winter feeding. Consider the benefits that could come from additional planning and research related to marketing calves or purchasing breeding stock. Be proactive, get out in front of issues and give yourself the opportunity to make the best possible decisions for your operation.

If you read all this and your response can be summed up with, “I’m Good”, that’s great. That’s how you should react, but recent observations tell me that there are plenty of producers out there to whom this will be  a much-needed reminder, and I am concerned. These times of adverse market conditions are when good management is the most valuable. Put in the work to find the best options for your operation and don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Extension Agents we can’t make the management decisions for you, but we can certainly help you gather and prioritize pertinent information, hopefully making it a little easier for you to make the best possible decisions for your operation.