Cattle and grain farmers find ways to co-operate

For many cattle producers across the country, last growing season was a scramble to acquire enough feed. Many regions were hot and dry with parched pastures and meagre hay crops. It wasn’t unusual to see hay prices rise from $70 a tonne to $200 or more.

In times like these, producers get creative. New relationships are forged between cattle producers and their grain-farming neighbours. Co-operation can be a win-win, but sometimes, for various reasons, opportunities are missed.

Dairy operations typically have first dibs on high quality hay production, and in areas prone to drought-reduced hay and silage crops, many dairy farms will make sure they always have a significant inventory on hand, notes Cedric MacLeod. He’s president of MacLeod Agronomics, a crop and cattle farming operation in Carleton County, N.B. He also provides professional consulting services.

While dairy producers require high quality hay, the list of viable feedstuffs for beef producers is more diverse, and that’s where various options exist for cattle and grain producers to work in concert. 

Changing opportunities

The list of mutually beneficial deals is long. For instance, after harvest, grain land can be fenced for grazing. This is particularly attractive if there’s some crop regrowth or if the area includes some grassland and if a water supply is readily available.

“This has become more of an option with the use of electric fences and solar panels,” says Sandy Russell of Spring Creek Land and Cattle Company at Outlook, Sask. In addition to being a beef industry consultant, Russell and her family are also beef producers.

Changes in agricultural practices open new opportunities. In many regions, cover crops are gaining popularity. After a crop is harvested for grain, another crop is left growing on the land.

“We’re still working to figure out how the cover crop revolution can support the livestock industry,” says MacLeod.

After hailstorms, cutting and baling can be the best option on some damaged cropland. And of course, cattle producers can bale straw if grain producers are willing to drop it in rows rather than chopping and spreading it behind the combine.

Communication is key

While some farms raise both grain and beef, increasingly farms have become specialized. Grain producers often don’t fully appreciate the feed supply needs of their cattle farming neighbours and therefore don’t recognize areas of co-operation.

“We’re stuck in our traditions and how we’ve done things,” Russell says.

“Establishing a long-term relationship is important,” MacLeod notes. Ongoing dialogue helps ensure opportunities don’t slip away.

Bridging the economic divide

When feed is in short supply, a grain producer might see dollar signs while a cow-calf producer might be hoping to salvage some feed for free. This divide has to be bridged for win-win situations to materialize.

“Even straw and chaff are worth something,” MacLeod explains. And that value increases in years when feed supplies are short. On the other hand, grain producers need to realize that cattle producers must exercise their most cost-effective options, taking time, labour and transportation into account.

“Get advice on the feed value,” Russell says, “and get agreements written down so there’s clarity.”

Beyond dollars and cents, convenience is also a factor. A grain producer might worry that bales won’t be removed in a timely manner or that cattle might escape into a farmyard. That’s why discussion and agreements are important.

Get an expert’s advice

In times of high forage prices, the economic value of a grain crop for forage can exceed the value of the grain. The trick is to recognize the value of the alternative use. It can be tough to accurately estimate the grain yield and value versus how many tonnes of forage a crop will generate. Help is available for these determinations, including public and private forage specialists.

The calculation should also include what the grain producer will save in costs for not having to harvest, truck and store the grain.

While years with feed shortages force producers to become creative, even in years when rainfall and cattle feed are abundant, areas of co-operation exist that can benefit both cattle and grain operations.

From an AgriSuccess article (January 2019) by Kevin Hursh.