Investments for Animal Feeding: Fence vs Machinery

Christine Gelley, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, Noble County OSU Extension

The more tools we have that maximize the days our animals graze while minimizing the days we feed hay, the better!

Years like 2019 can test farmers and ranchers to the brink of insanity. People in this profession have to be resilient to the unpredictability of the weather, the markets, and the general chaos of life. All year thus far, we have discussed many ways to adapt our animal feeding programs, pasture systems, and hay production to the far from ideal conditions we are facing.

By now, I hope you have read articles, listened to podcasts, watched videos, talked with your neighbors and your local ag educators about what to do next. Crop selection, site management, and soil health have been a huge topics addressed regarding cover crops for prevent plant acres, damaged pastures, weeds, poor quality hay, and feed shortages.

But, I’m going to take this article a different direction . . .

If you have ruminant livestock, I am convinced that the best long-term solution to these types of unpredictable circumstances in already in your possession. All you need are the tools to implement them.

Tool #1: You have an amazing creature on your farm that is a custom forage harvester, fertilizer applicator, and valuable source of food, fiber, and more. Ruminant animals are the perfect tool for turning food we cannot eat, into food we love to eat. They even multiply so that we can continue the cycle infinitely if desired. They fuel our bodies, after their bodies have been fueled by forage, which has been fueled by the sun, soil, and water. How much more sustainable can you get than that?

Tool #2: You are the most knowledgeable person about your animals and your farm. You have the ability to determine where those custom forage harvesters go and when. You have the smarts to make decisions about how to improve your land.

Tool #3: You have the source of all life to care for and nurture. You have soil. All life depends on healthy soils. The choices you make to minimize erosion, reduce compaction, and enhance soil organic matter will either benefit or degrade the productive potential of your farm in generations to come.

Tool #4: You have money. While it seems like we could always use a little more than we have, the money that you have now can be used as a tool to either sustain endeavors for the short-term or for the long-term.

Where I think we are often lacking in regard to grazing livestock is making investments for the long-term.

An investment in additional fencing could reduce the opportunities for feeding in these conditions.

What would you consider a long-term investment? Opinions may vary, but when it comes to making assessments with a financial advisor, a long-term asset or liability is one that spans greater than 10 years or is considered permanent.

Now, I have heard many producers talk about the need for bigger, better, and more plentiful machinery to use on the farm. To make better hay they need a better tractor, more implements, or a hay barn, which may all be true. But, I have heard fewer producers talk about the same regarding fencing. It may be a risky statement to make coming from someone in a household where groceries are bought by a spouse who repairs tractors for a living, but, in my opinion, fence could be one of your best long-term investments.

When you compare the cost of installing 30-year fencing to a the price of a new discbine, which is less cost per year of it’s useful lifespan? The last time I calculated the price of contracted installed fence, I could spend $13,000 on five miles of fence or $17,000 on a five-year old discbine.

Depending on your unique situation, the benefits of investing in fence may outweigh the benefits of acquiring more machinery for the farm. Of course, many machines and implements can make fence installation and rotational grazing easier as well. However, once the fence is in, the main things you need are yourself, a four-wheeler, side-by-side, or good dog, gates, and water.

The more you can do to increase your flexibility to move animals from one area to another, the more options you have when conditions are less than ideal.

You can split or combine animals into more groups. You can allow sections of your pasture to rest, while still utilizing growing forages. You can alternate hay fields into pastures and pastures into hay fields. You can reduce the likelihood of birthing young in mud and feeding copious amounts of hay in muddy rings. You can even try new forage crops for grazing in smaller plantings with lower inherent risk when you fence to create separate zones.

There is no doubt about it, when you compare making hay to grazing forage, grazing is more cost effective and usually, it provides better nutrition than hay.

Overall, the more tools that you have to maximize the days your animals graze and minimize the number of days you feed hay, the better for you and the better for your livestock. Installing good fence can be one of the greatest investments you make for your farm with lasting longevity.