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How often should you move your cattle?

Greg Halich for Progressive Forage Published on 28 April 2017
moving cattle

It seems that in the last decade many cattle farmers have steadily increased the intensity of cattle moves, some moving multiple times each day. While moving cattle more frequently is generally beneficial to pasture growth as well as increased utilization, it also comes with a cost.

The most profitable cattle movement period will depend on the situation: Moving once per day may be the most profitable option in one scenario, and moving once per week may be the most profitable option in another. This article evaluates how often it makes sense to move cattle on your operation, given the specifics of your farm.

While there is also the potential benefit of better animal performance with increased movement intensity, my personal experience is: The higher the intensity of movement, the less room for error you have. For simplicity, this analysis will not consider animal performance.

So the combination of greater forage production and utilization will be the sole benefit evaluated. On the cost side, only increased labor will be considered. However, it is possible there would be additional costs such as water and fencing infrastructure.

Both the cost and benefits are measured in dollars per cow per day. To get this on the cost side, we consider the time it takes for the average cattle move, the labor rate and the number of cows (or stocker cattle, sheep, etc.) you have on that farm. The labor rate is assumed constant at $15 per hour, but a number of situations will be evaluated for movement time and number of cows.

On the benefit side, we need to consider the overall profitability of the enterprise as well as the time of year. Time of year is important, as it affects the value of the additional forage production and utilization. In the spring and early summer, the value of additional forage production or utilization is quite low.

We generally have too much forage at this time of year. By mid-summer, however, additional forage will have higher value. If we can increase forage production or utilization by 25 percent from mid-summer through the fall, we could effectively increase our stocking rate by 25 percent. In this case, the value of the additional 25 percent forage production would be affected by the profitability of our operation.

As with costs, we need to express this benefit in dollars per cow per day. To do this, you would take your profit per cow (exclude all land costs including clipping, fertilizer, etc.) and divide this by the average number of days you graze each year.

For example, if your profit per cow is $200 (not including land costs) and you graze on average 200 days, your benefit is $1 per cow per day ($200 profit per cow divided by 200 days). If you do not have a good estimate for your profit, I would recommend using the $1-per-cow-per-day figure.

Tables 1 and 2 show the labor cost per cow per day. Table 1 assumes 45-minute moves, and Table 2 assumes 75-minute moves. These would include all time associated with the move, including driving or walking to and from the pasture, gathering equipment, moving water infrastructure, etc.

Labor cost per cow per day

Both tables show a range of cow numbers (30 to 200) as well as days between paddock moves (from every day to once per week).

As an example of how the tables work, assume a paddock move takes 45 minutes (Table 1), we have 50 cows, and we are moving once per week. The associated labor cost in the table is 3 cents per cow per day. If we moved twice per week (3.5 days between moves), the cost would go up to 6 cents per cow per day. By moving every two days or every day, the costs increase to 11 and 23 cents per cow per day, respectively.

Another way to look at this is: If we increase the movement intensity, how much does the labor cost increase? If we go from moving once per week to twice per week, the labor cost increases by 3 cents per cow per day with 50 cows.

If we determined that an additional grazing day increases our profit by $1, then we would divide the increased cost by the increased profit (3 cents divided by $1) to get the associated percentage increase in grazing days needed to just pay for the increased labor. In this scenario, it would be a 3 percent increase in total grazing days needed. Going from weekly moves to twice-a- week moves, I would expect at least this combined increase in production or utilization.

If we go from moving every second day to every day, this would translate into a 12 percent increase needed in total grazing days. I would not expect this large of an increase in that scenario.

However, there is no good research I am aware of that conclusively shows what increase in grazing days you would expect with various paddock stays. Thus, you will need to use your best judgement and experience in making this determination.

An important general observation: Notice how much quicker the labor costs increase with more intense pasture moves with 30 cows compared to 200 cows. If our estimated profit is $1 for an additional grazing day, we would need a 19 percent increase in grazing days to pay for the labor to go from second-day moves to daily moves with 30 cows but only a 3 percent increase in grazing days for 200 cows.

In other words, intense movement schedules that work for large herds will be less profitable or not profitable for smaller herds.

Table 2 assumes 75 minutes for each move. This may be due to having to travel to get to the farm rather than living there. Most people underestimate the time it takes to move cattle if they have to travel.

Labor cost per cow per day 75 min per move

Notice again how much more this increase in time affects the smaller cow herds compared to the larger cow herds. The cost for one-day moves only increased 3 cents per cow per day (compared to 45-minute moves) for a 200-cow herd but increased 25 cents per cow per day for a 30-cow herd. The general effect is: For small herds, the rotation intensity that worked for 45-minute moves will not work as well if it takes longer periods of time to move cattle.

To determine the best movement schedule for your operation, first determine if the 45- or 75-minute move best represents your situation. Then pick the cow numbers (or stocker, or sheep, etc.) closest to your situation. Use this row on the table and, starting with a seven-day move, calculate the difference in cost per cow per day going to the 3.5-day level.

Divide this cost difference by your estimated profit per cow to get the minimum percentage increase needed in forage production or utilization to pay for the additional cost. If you feel this increase is attainable, then it makes sense to move at least twice a week. Now take the difference in cost between 3.5-day moves and two-day moves and do the same.

Stop when you feel the percentage increase in forage production or utilization is not likely to be attained. The last movement schedule that was attainable will be your optimal movement intensity.

Profitability of your operation will have a large impact on your optimal movement intensity. If your profitability was 50 cents per cow per day instead of $1, the percentage increase in grazing days needed would double. If your profitability was $2 per cow per day, then the percentage would be cut in half.

Many cattle farmers could benefit from moving cattle more often. However, as with anything, there is a limit in terms of its cost and benefit. Moving beyond this point, labor costs will be higher than the benefits of increased grazing days. Move your cattle, but do so wisely.  end mark

PHOTO: When does cost of moving cattle from pasture to pasture outweigh the benefit of movement? Let’s use simple math to calculate your optimal movement strategy. There is a point of diminishing return. Staff photo.

Greg Halich is an associate extension professor in agricultural economics at University of Kentucky. Email Greg Halich