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Figuring the cost of winter-feeding options

We run a research farm. We are definitely not a “funded” organization, but we always have a series of experiments on the go. Our goal is always to find things that work for us to either reduce costs or add value. I think our track record has been pretty decent, but we have had a few busts as well.

Our experimentation does not always have to be current or leading edge, and a lot of times the experiments are testing things that are already in production on other farms to see if they work here. Sometimes our experimental designs come strictly from the fact that I like frugality and often think I can do more for less. Sometimes they are just driven out of sheer curiosity. I thought it might be interesting to walk through a few of the projects we have on the go over the next couple of articles and maybe spawn some ideas and discussion.

The first rule of experimentation around here is to not put all of your eggs in one basket. To give a couple of examples, we did not switch to winter corn grazing 100 per cent when we tried it, and we do not restrict access to water when we test a new solar pump.

The second rule and where we lose a lot of folks is to write stuff down. For us this includes things like dates, time spent on construction/deployment, cost recording and in some cases actual results. Trial and error (mostly error) has shown us that writing things down helps to identify the success or failure of the result as well as remembering the experiment in the first place.

The third and final rule is to look for co-operation. We have been able to find fantastic partners that are looking for a place to conduct research. We always wind up with skin in the game, but more than any cost savings, the opportunity to have experts “on staff” to interpret what is going on is invaluable.


I wrote about our rake-bunching experiment a bit last winter. It was an idea I was turned onto through a friend that worked for Alberta Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture (AESA). We basically pulled an old steel wheel dump rake out of our bush and used it to put hay up into piles. The idea is that the piles provide easier access to the hay over the winter and preserve the quality better than a swath. We restricted access to the piles using electric cross fence.

Last year, which was a strange and open winter, we ran all of our replacement heifers on these bunches. After all of our costs were accounted for at custom rates (cutting/raking) and I charged out my winter labour and mineral we ran $0.25 per day to winter our heifers. I thought this was wrong, but when I double-checked my math it was spot on and it included the 1/2 can of WD40 it took to get our rake running. This was after we had already grazed approximately 60 animal-unit grazing days on the area before cutting and bunching.

I still have a lot of questions about rake bunching and am not prepared to rely on it 100 per cent for my winter feed supply, but the results were exciting enough that we did some more last summer. This winter will be a real test as we have over two feet of snow on the ground as I write this pre-Christmas. We are not as far along in our winter grazing as using the bunches yet, other than a few bulls for a bit in October, but it could be an interesting solution to using perennial forages more intensively in a winter-grazing scenario.


Bale grazing is not really a cutting-edge solution anymore. A lot of folks have used bale grazing for a long time. We had previously set out to bale graze and then through other forage resources wound up not using our set-up bales. Two years ago this bit us in the butt and we wound up feeding cows for 90 days in deep snow.

While still well below the average for our area, this was extremely traumatic for us. The credo of “never again” was sworn and last year we implemented a strategic bale-grazing plan to complement our stockpiled grass and swath grazing.

At the same time AESB (formerly PFRA) was looking to replicate some work done in Manitoba on bale grazing and were looking for co-operators. I love co-operation. The logical location for us to bale graze was the absolutely most abused piece of ground we own. I would term it a “convenience pasture.” It is convenient during calving, convenient to turn cows out after branding, conveniently located for summer processing, and conveniently located for weaning calves. With this not-recommended no-rest rotation this small pasture looked like a golf green.

AESB has done survey work, soil tests, feed tests, soil temperature and moisture monitoring, soil biology and now are working on a project to track nutrient flows to develop recommendations for grazing near water bodies. This is fantastically exciting to me as it lets us do things better going forward, and provides some valuable information for other producers.

The exciting results are that the areas we bale grazed with no additional inputs saw fantastic increases in yield and an improvement in species mix. Rough equivalent increases in production compared to control areas were in excess of 9,000 pounds of dry matter per acre. The neat thing about the in-depth work being done is that the yield is being collected in a grid pattern around the bales and additional environmental data, so there is additional information coming to light about ideal spacing of bales, setbacks, nutrient losses, and the list goes on.

Needless to say, this is a program that is continuing here. We don’t background calves in the corral anymore and we start the tractor to push snow out of the driveway. Last winter it took 6-1/2 hours to place all of our bales and almost exactly 20 gallons of diesel. Feeding nearly 300 head for the winter took approximately 2-1/2 hours a week and did not require starting a tractor. While it is hard to gauge what you did not spend or depreciate, my cost estimates showed a savings of over $15,000 for our operation compared to more traditional methods.


The saying that one thing leads to another is certainly true for us, and once we became engaged in our bale-grazing project, the folks at AESB were investigating some other issues that our terrain was pretty suitable for. As we are curious and we had developed a good working partnership, last fall they showed up with a drilling rig and put several shallow wells of varying depths in place to test nutrient movement from bale grazing through the soil profile, the water table and other various and sundry pathways. Our soil is generally pretty high in clay content, so we don’t think that the water moves much, but it is certainly going to be interesting to see. One site is a bale grazing location near a slough that we think may discharge into a seep in a coulee bottom about one-eighth of a mile away. It will be interesting to learn the results as they go.

In the next article I will walk through a few summer-related projects we have been working on. †

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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