As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?
The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and perhaps for four). We estimate that this paddock will last the ewes for seven days. Working together, we had it built in about 90 minutes. Doing the math (and paying our selves $15 per hour - at least on paper), putting up this fence cost us $45. To make this comparison fair, we'll charge our selves some depreciation on the fencing (that is, the cost of owning this asset). Our total cost for feeding the ewes for the next seven days, then, is $50.
Let's compare this to feeding hay. With the number of sheep we have in this group, we'd need to feed 3 bales of alfalfa per day to meet their nutritional needs. Assuming we bought a truckload of hay (which makes the per bale price less than buying it from the feed store), these 3 bales would cost us $24/day. Add to that the time spent loading (5 minutes) and the time spent feeding (15 minutes), and our per day cost to feed alfalfa would be $29 per day. I won't add the time and fuel spent driving out to the sheep - we do that everyday regardless of whether we're taking hay to them. If we multiply this daily cost by the seven days the ewes will be in the paddock we built this morning, the cost of feeding hay for a week is $203. I received my bachelor's degree in agricultural economics nearly 27 years ago, but I think I remember learning that it made more sense to use the approach that resulted in lower costs - in other words, it made more sense to build the fence than to buy and feed the hay.
This trade off decision has ramifications for the rest of our management. Since we're moving sheep frequently, we're able to rest pastures after we graze them. This makes our system more efficient - the sheep get one chance to graze the plants in their current paddock, and then the grass gets to grow again. Based on our calculations, this has allowed us to increase our stocking rate by 25-30% over a system where the sheep would simply graze all 200 acres of our winter pastures from December 1 through April 1. In other words, allowing regrowth to occur means we grow more grass.
Sheep are notoriously susceptible to internal parasites. Since they are grazing our paddocks for 4-7 days on average - and then moving off those paddocks for 30-365 days, we're able to disrupt the life cycle of these internal parasites. This saves us money on dewormers.
Trade offs are not always black-and-white, either-or questions. There are times (in the midst of a driving rain, for example) when 15 minutes of feeding hay sounds far more enjoyable than 45 minutes of building fence. Most days, however, I like keeping that extra money in my pocket - that's the ultimate trade off!