I’m sure that many of you have sat down to begin creating a meal plan. It can feel overwhelming at first, but once you get into a rhythm, it is a great way to provide a tasty meal, help with your budget and make the best use of your pantry items. However, there isn’t a precise meal planning method for cow herds – that’s what ranchers manage throughout the year. 

This planning is critical for caring for cattle in the wintertime. Early in the year, we assess the impact of winter on our hay crop, silage piles and corn in the bins – essentially, our “cow pantry” ingredients. The goal is to ensure sufficient feed for the fall and winter months when grazing on pasture isn’t possible. Evaluating our supply helps us plan which crops to grow or purchase. Come along as I guide you through our “meal plan” process for our cattle herd. 

In some years, like the prior winter, extremely cold and wet conditions made us start feeding earlier and increase the quantity of feed due to snow-covered grass and low temperatures. We might have utilized a higher amount of hay than alfalfa or increased silage and corn usage to facilitate calf weight gains. If we use less silage, we know to bale the Sudangrass instead of turning it into silage. It is similar to opening your refrigerator, spotting numerous containers of leftovers, and realizing that you won’t need to prepare a meal for the evening. 

Our goal is to grow as much feed as possible during the summer months. Sometimes, we grow what we need and then sell the surplus. In years of drought, we harvest less hay off our land. The shortage then makes us purchase hay or consider selling calves or cows. All of this hinges on commodity prices and the outlook for the following year. Once we evaluate these factors, we can make operational decisions. It’s similar to going to the store and examining the prices of food items to determine if they align with your budget. 

Once we get to winter, we use all the ingredients we have grown to feed our cows and calves. We use different feeding methods depending on the weather, what feedstuff is available and how many animals we feed. One method is to process the bales for our cows, involving a machine that chops up the hay, making it more accessible and easier for the cattle to consume. However, for a small number of cattle in a pen, we might place a bale in a feeder; this allows them continuous access to the hay. Another feeding method involves using a feeder wagon, a piece of equipment that blends silage, corn and hay to provide a balanced diet for the livestock. These methods are similar to using different kitchen tools for various recipes, such as a knife and cutting board for one meal, a slow cooker for the next and a mixer for another. 

After implementing your initial meal plan, you begin to identify what suits your preferences. You discover what you enjoy, how you prefer it prepared and what aligns with your budget. Similarly, ranchers apply this approach to their “meal plans” for their cattle herds, recognizing that plans evolve due to various factors. Despite the ever-changing nature of plans, having a solid foundational plan can make the process feel more manageable.