Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Money in the Bank

For a beef producer, having adequate hay stockpiles is the same as having money in the bank. When the grass production ceases in the winter or, like we've seen for the last two years, there is no grass due to drought, a beef producer without hay either has to sell his cattle (usually at a loss since so many others are selling for the same reason) or buy hay (usually at a premium since so many others are desperate for hay at the same time).

And growing enough hay comes down to rainfall (or irrigation) and nitrogen. We grow Gordo Bluestem grass to make hay in our eight-acre hay meadow. Most commercial hay growers, and many of our neighbors, grow Bermuda-type grasses for hay. Bermuda grass won't grow well and will have less protien without large inputs of nitrogen fertilizer. Fortunately, Bluestem being a native Texas grass, isn't quite so dependent on fertilizer for quantity or quality.

The synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that is most readily available and most easily to applied comes with environmental costs and increasing dollar costs. But, not applying it could mean the difference of half a hay crop and having to sell your cows or buy hay.

When we were new to hay growing, we applied the synthetic nitrogen as recommended by our neighbors and local feed/fertilizer store. The increased production was impressive but after finding out more about the hidden costs of this fertilizer to our ground water and to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I began searching for a better nitrogen solution.

One thing we did was plant Burr Medic clover, which naturally adds nitrogen to the soil. An interesting article on nitrogen fixing plants vs. synthetic nitrogen can be found here . But, due to the drought the clover never took off, although we may try it again this year if we continue to get a half-way normal rainfall.
The other thing we did a few years ago and just repeated last week was adding two tons per acre of chicken litter. Largely due to the transportation costs, as it is delivered in the big truck next to my Big Dummy bicycle, chicken litter is almost as expensive as the synthetic nitrogen but hopefully balances out to be more environmentally friendly. I do believe that it is better for our soil in general as organic matter is being added.

We are staying ahead of the curve in hay production, even without applying any synthetic nitrogen in six years or so. With adequate rainfall this year we should be well ahead.