In Nebraska’s Sandhills, a ranch is considered “balanced” when its capacity for hay production sufficiently complements the acres available for cattle to graze. Large sub-irrigated meadows, like those Derek and Lesa Schwanebeck have, are prized for the native grass hay they will produce. The region’s hay-making tradition is strong and most ranchers devote much of each summer to the harvest. Resulting bales or stacks are hauled to storage areas easily accessed when winter comes, and the hay is fed to cattle.
Schwanebecks know the drill. They have experienced the routine of putting up hay all summer and feeding it all winter. They don’t do it anymore.
“It runs against tradition, but we stopped haying the wet meadows,” states Derek. “We don’t make any hay at all. We don’t believe we can afford it.”
That kind of talk probably sounds like blasphemy to many veteran Sandhills ranchers. Most were just youngsters when they started helping with hay harvest. They learned, like generations before them, that haying is what ranchers must do to provide cattle with adequate winter forage. So how can anyone afford to not make hay?
Schwanebecks seriously pondered the true cost of hay production several years ago, after attending the Ranching for Profit School. Derek says instructor Dave Pratt encouraged them to focus more attention on the business side of ranching. It led Derek and Lesa to break with other long-time traditions as well. For example, instead of breeding cows to calve in late-winter and early-spring, their commercial Red Angus cows start calving in May. Instead of looking at everything through the eyes of cattle producers, Schwanebecks adopted a grazier’s point of view. They started planning how to more efficiently use their primary resource – grass.
Derek started out, 20 years ago, as an employee on the Ellsworth-area ranch belonging to Lesa’s family. Since establishing their own operation, the couple has purchased land and leased part of that same family ranch. They maintain a cow-calf herd consisting of both owned and leased cows. Additional enterprises include running stocker cattle and custom-grazing.
Derek says individual enterprise analysis showed how their former haying enterprise was not profitable. It was cheaper to buy hay. That is true even today, with hay prices hovering around $200 per ton.
“Even if you think you can put up hay at a relatively low cost, the real cost (to your cattle enterprise) is equal to whatever price you can sell it for,” explains Derek, noting the importance of considering opportunity cost.
“We got rid of the machinery and dramatically reduced our inputs for fuel, labor and maintenance,” he adds. “We now get along with only one tractor, and it’s over 40 years old. We have maybe $30,000 worth of equipment. That’s everything, including cattle handling facilities.”
Deciding to purchase hay left the meadows available for grazing, along with the surrounding hill ground. All grazing land is intensively managed, according to a planned, time-controlled grazing system. Schwanebeck cattle are moved frequently through a succession of grazing paddocks. Cattle spend anywhere from just one day to a maximum of three days in any given paddock. Those located in the hills are grazed just once during the growing season. Typically, meadow paddocks are grazed twice, with the second use following a sufficient period of paddock rest and regrowth. Derek says that when and how long grazing occurs is important, but allowing for rest during the growing season is critical.
“The rest period is everything,” he emphasizes. “And we never graze the same place at the same time in successive years.”
Late-spring calving is better suited to the Schwanebeck year-round grazing goal. The May-calving cows’ winter nutrient requirements are lower. Typically on green grass well before they calve, the cows maintain adequate body condition and breed back with minimal supplementation. Consequently, most of the purchased hay is fed to calves when they are weaned. An added benefit of buying hay is the importation of nutrients. By feeding the hay in areas of low productivity or places where sand is prone to blow, “wasted” hay becomes organic matter that cattle hoof impact incorporates into the soil.
According to Derek, along with increasing land productivity, time-controlled grazing has improved utilization of available forage, including plant species often considered to be less than desirable forage. This is perhaps most evident in the wet meadows surrounding small, shallow lakes.
“We can get cows to graze swampy areas near the lakes. They even graze cattails,” Derek explains. “Some of our most profitable acreage is swamp ground.”
Schwanebecks also have a drought plan, which has been put to the test recently. The operation’s multiple enterprises make planning easier and ease implementation of the plan.
“When a drought situation makes lower stocking rates necessary, we can reduce or eliminate custom-grazed cattle first. Next in line would be the stockers, and reducing cow numbers comes last,” explains Derek. “You have to protect the land. Planning ahead, knowing what you will do and when it has to be done, does make it easier. There’s less anxiety and you sleep better at night.”
Schwanebecks consider good stewardship essential to improving their land resources and sustaining the operation. But they don’t believe their business is sustainable unless it generates a profit.
“By each November, we have developed a plan for the next year, and it must include a return on investment of at least 10 percent. That’s a return above all costs, including the salary we pay ourselves,” states Derek.
“Any success we’ve had is because we focus on making our business profitable. It has to work or we’re not going to do it,” he adds. “It has worked. I think that’s also because we’ve made the business work for our family, instead making the family work for the business. When we took that approach, life got better.”