For Jay Jensen and his family, feeding cattle every day through an Idaho winter has become a distant memory instead of a chore.
This is the third winter that a field of silage corn is an automatic feeder for their herd near Moore in central Idaho, where they also raise grain and hay.
“Last winter, we didn't feed a single bale of hay, and we had 2-3' of snow on the ground,” Jensen says of a 75-acre cornfield that fed 165 red and black Angus cows.
The cows did so well that he expanded the cornfield to 90 acres last summer. Using pivot irrigation, Jensen grew a silage corn that matures in 112 days.
“We had frost in early September, so it only grew to about 6-8' tall instead of 10' tall like it did the previous summer,” Jensen says. “I'm growing the corn more for forage than grain.”
He planned to feed 190 cows from January through April 20.
“We used to feed 2½ tons of hay every day through winter,” says Jensen's son Karl. “By letting the cows graze in the corn instead, we saved time and gas money because we didn't have to harvest as much hay as usual, and we didn't have to haul hay to them. The cows stayed healthy and maintained body condition.”
In 2005, Jensen began to consider feeding the cows in a cornfield during winter after attending a workshop about intensive grazing.
“We brainstormed about ways to think outside the box to improve how we raise cattle,” Jensen recalls.
Growing a cornfield for the cows to eat during winter would cost less than growing and feeding hay or silage, he theorized.
“Basically, the cows are harvesting their own food,” says Jensen, who estimated conservatively that the 75-acre cornfield yielded about 6 tons/acre of dry, usable feed last winter.
According to Karl's calculations, the field produced feed costing about $60/ton compared to $90-150/ton for processed feed such as hay or silage.
To implement the winter corn grazing program, the Jensens changed their calving dates from winter to summer so the cows would be in their second trimester of pregnancy during winter and have relatively low nutritional requirements.
After the cows have eaten the corn, Jensen moves them to a Bureau of Land Management grazing allotment in late spring. In July, he brings them home to calve and graze on his private pastures.
“It's a lot easier to calve in the summer — for the cows as well as us,” he says.
The Jensens also changed the time they sell their calves from fall to spring.
“Our target price is $1.25 a pound for a 500- to 600-weight calf,” Jensen says. “If calves are not selling for that price, we just put them on spring grazing until they get a little bigger, then sell them. We have more options with our new calving dates.”
Jensen says feeding cows in the corn has been worthwhile.
“We made some dramatic changes,” Jensen says. “It's been a fun experiment.”