Alfalfa pellets work for us

The summer of 2011 and 2012 were brutal with the drought. Hay was scarce, good hay even scarcer and the cost was premium. The summer of 2013 was so much better with farmers getting an unheard of 2nd cut of brome grass hay. The winter of 2012/2013 we decided to experiment with barley fodder. That went off great an we continued that until the weather got too warm. All of that is explained on our “fodder folder”.

We found a supplier for alfalfa in the spring of 2013 that wasn’t already filled up with “regular” customers (meaning, he sold a certain amount of of the field to his regulars and was not taking new customers). He is a supplier I trust puts up good hay and therein lies some of the problems with hay we’ve come across. We’ve gotten entirely too much bad hay, particularly in big rounds and when hay is already at a premium price, having several bad experiences with 1,000+ lb. bales when the cost was cheaper certainly isn’t something I want to bet my money on when it’s twice as much!  In July of 2013 we decided to go with alfalfa pellets for a month and see how that panned out. If we didn’t like them, we could still get in on the 4th cutting of alfalfa and be set for winter. If the pellets panned out, we’d save ourselves the labor and cost of putting up all that alfalfa (and trying to find room for it besides).

We were gifted 3 blue 55 gallon food grade barrels from a friend and one was left here by the prior owners of this place.  I had the kids get out and clean them so they could be filled. We take them down to the co op where they fill them from a hopper. The cost for “de-hy” pellets is running about $356 a ton right now (December 2013). Sun cured pellets are just a little over $300 a ton. That price difference (alfalfa was sitting at about $290 a ton baled but has since dropped to about $240 for dairy quality) in pellets over baled product being $90-110 a ton, maybe you can see my reservations about going with pellets.

barrel racing

However, after going and having the barrels filled, offloading, seeing the space the 4 barrels (1200 lbs) occupies, how the goats eat it, their body condition and milk production over the course of the 6 weeks those pellets ended up lasting us, the pellets by far won out over baled alfalfa. I never would have thought pellets would be the way to go on so many levels, but they are for us!

Why must we feed alfalfa? 

I am not comfortable putting the goats on an all grass diet. Calcium and the added protein are critical to dairy goats and hypocalcemia and milk fever are always a clear and present danger in my opinion. A diet that is too high in phosphorus (grass hay + grain) and low in calcium (a diet void of calcium rich feed) is potential for nutritional imbalances and nutritionally related health problems. I have yet to fully understand how to incorporate a natural calcium supplement throughout the year that will be sufficient enough for their diets without incorporating alfalfa in their diets. Forage (leaves and roughage up high from trees and bushes) contain a lot more nutrients than grasses do. Goats are naturally foragers by nature. Why do forages often contain more nutrition than grasses? Forages from trees and bushes have much deeper and wider root growth than pasture grasses and therefore are able to penetrate farther and deeper to consume more nutrients. Mimicking a safe diet on all grass that readily available to us is not something I have been comfortable with doing, especially considering and seeing the long term effects of a doe suffering from hypocalcemia.

Leave a goat to themselves on a pasture and they will readily go for the most nutritious (which is usually the most tasty to them) foods. Without proper rotating, pastures become void of anything readily nutritious to eat for goats. Goats do not survive well on just any old thing when they are being asked to produce milk or kids or both.

All grasses are not all equal in terms of nutritional value. I have yet to find a grass that rivals alfalfa in terms of protein and calcium that is available to us. Weedy grass that the goats will eat isn’t easy to find. Some “weeds” contain more calcium and protein than what is considered prime weedless brome hay. It’s not like we have a wide variety of grass hays to readily choose from. What is  most readily available is brome and prairie. Given the fact that we have tried prairie grass before, the does would just assume starve to death (and I am not kidding) than eat it (the bucks eat it fine), it would be silly to buy it. If I knew a reputable hay grower who put up clover or lespedeza, I’d be all over it! I’ve considered taking a trip down to SE Kansas or up to near KC to check out people’s clover or lespedeza hay, but in the end, all of that needs to be compared to the ease and cost of buying pellets and anything from farther away than 1.5 hours is not cost effective for us to get ourselves and then a haul company would come in to play and that translates into $’s.

How could it possibly be a savings to use pellets when we’re spending more than $100 more a ton?

Well, several ways. #1 going and getting a baled product is time consuming. Not to mention, a lot of work. Additionally, if the product cannot be fetched out of the field, the cost rises substantially as soon as the farmer puts his hands on it and places it in his barn, which is totally understandable. If an individual cannot put up enough hay in one fell swoop and/or doesn’t have the room to do so, as winter wears on, that already more expensive stored product becomes even more expensive.

We don’t exactly have the room to store as much square baled hay as we would need for an entire year (so we could get it all at the “out of the field” price) and to be honest, the summers are already brutal. The thought of spending 100+ degree afternoons plucking bales out in the hay field putting up hay is not my idea of a good time! Additionally, it’s wear and tear on our bodies and Jeremiah being a diabetic, we saw the effects of that this past summer after bucking hay nearly put him in the ER when haying took longer than expected and his lunch meal was skipped. That’s not the hay’s fault but still!

  • What about just getting all round bales then?

While round bales are a significant savings per ton (as they require less labor to put up), we don’t allow access (for the most part) full time for the goats to round bales. Once opened, they are stored under cover and their ration is dolled out. There are a couple of reasons for this but mainly because there would waste from trampling and the cost to build a bale feeder to hold it so they could not trample is not in the time cards right now. I also do not like feeding out hay from  big round in the wind and cold. It takes several trips with the pitch fork, half of it usually flies away in route and it’s time consuming to feed like that. I like to have square bales put up for that reason.

The cost savings isn’t just in labor and storage alone. More than half a ton (1,000 lbs. is half a ton. Our 4 barrels hold about 300 lbs. each or 1200 lbs. total) of storage space of pellets takes up the same amount of room as 10 bales of alfalfa which is only about 600 lbs. of baled product, max 900 lbs. if the bales are newly off the field and still retaining moisture so they are larger.  That right there is huge for us. Our barn is a decent size and our outbuildings are substantial but having hay here there and yonder is a pain and I loose valuable animal shelter/breeding space. Not to mention, our loafing sheds are over 30 years old and are in need of some repair (A.K.A total overhaul!). Having hay in them sort of nixes any overhaul on them.

It takes one of us approximately an hour round trip to go get pellets (drive time + fill time). We’d be driving about the same distance to get hay but the time to put up the hay and the labor involved is astronomically more.  The only labor involved in the pellets is putting the barrels into the back of the truck. Once we get home, we drive the tractor up to the back of the truck bed, scootch the barrels into the loader bucket and offload them into the barn, a task that takes max. 20 minutes. That computes to about 1.5 man hours every 6 weeks or so. With baled hay we’re looking at at least 12 man hours worth of work for approximately 100 square bales which we would need to do about 3 times in a season! Our pellet ration drops at the beginning of winter as only the bucks and heavily pregnant does are on alfalfa pellets. Newly dry does and does that aren’t heavily bred get mostly brome only. They do not need the extra calcium, they also do not get grain either.

How does it save us money in terms of feeding? 

I never would have believed it, but we feed less pellets than we do baled alfalfa with better results. I thought perhaps I’d go through 4 barrels of pellets for the lactating goats, a little for the others (growing/dry kids) and bucks in a month (4 weeks). It takes about 6 weeks to use the barrels in entirety. I had to cut back on pellets because the milking does were putting on more weight than they should have been and the pellets took the bucks in to winter in better body condition than baled alfalfa.

WASTE, the dreaded word. They waste a lot, alfalfa falling to the ground is worthless gold! They won’t eat it once it’s fallen to the ground. Sure, the pigs might but we don’t house our pigs and goats together. Why not just scoop it up and give it to the pigs? We could but there-in comes more work! Don’t be fooled, we aren’t strangers to work. We work a lot, working smarter and not harder is a phrase my FIL likes to use. We like to work smarter so that our time is well spent on meaningful tasks, not to save a penny here while we spend a $1 there on waste. That said, there is absolutely ZERO waste with the pellets. They lap every single morsel and flake up. We’ve since switched from “de-hy” pellets to all sun cured. The sun cured are a little cheaper and they are actually formed pellets. The de-hy pellets we were getting varied in their texture, sometimes being well formed pellets sometimes being just dust. They ate it fine both ways and since the guaranteed min. protein was the same, why not save $ and get the sun-cured? What’s the difference between sun cured and de-hy? Google search it. Some say one can be more nutritious (de-hy) than the other (sun-cured), but after further reading I came to the conclusion that both can be equally as good under the right manufacturing conditions and there’s really no set result on how well the animal’s body digested one or the other so I am not going to split hairs.

So, financially speaking how do pellets save you money straight up (and not in terms of labor)?

Well, considering waste is zero on the pellets I look at it like this:

They would have to waste 25% of baled alfalfa hay to equal the cost of pellets on a ton per ton basis (alfalfa being at about $250 a ton (supreme) to alfalfa pellets’ $310 a ton. Would you believe me if I said they waste upwards of 50% or more baled alfalfa? Believe it, sometimes more if its all stems. And this is for round or square bales of alfalfa (not small squares) which right now are sitting at about $9 a bale (say an average of a $60 lb. bale x 30 bales to a ton and that’s $270 a ton!). So, they are wasting more AND there’s more work in getting the hay and putting it up AND then there’s more clean up from the baled product? YEP! Someone’s gotta haul that wasted alfalfa out of our barn. Alfalfa makes dandy fertilizer no doubt, but so does goat manure and goat manure is a product of a fed goat. Wasted alfalfa is not!

So there you have it. Why we didn’t switch ages ago is baffling to me. I guess I needed to see it with my own eyes before I could see it have an effect on the pocket book, and/or our time and bodies. If we could not get bulk alfalfa pellets it may be completely different. To buy it by the 50# bag would cost us a minimum of $10.50 from the co op (before taxes) to upward of $15 (before tax) from the farm store. Then it would almost be no difference in manual labor to put it into the barn, storage would be same as the barrels obviously. Also, the price of pellets doesn’t usually vary much during the year like the baled product so buying it any time of the year will not compute to more per ton, like hay.

I guess the way I always compared the two was completely wrong. I didn’t take into consideration the fact there is no waste with the pellets and the amount of the baled alfalfa they actually do waste. I was seeing 50# of pellets costing me between $10.50 to $15 and 50# baled alfalfa costing about $7.40. I should have been looking at it like baled alfalfa costing me $300-375+ a ton after waste AND I still have to put in a lot of man hours and manual labor to get it and pellets costing me $240 a ton and there’s 99% less manual labor an 75% less man hours.

It’s a no brainer for us.

Will we continue with the fodder for the goats this winter? 

No. Our fodder room would need an additional 3 shelving units (modified to fit into the space of 2, you can read all about that on our fodder folder) and it would force my bulk fabric rack out and into my sewing studio. Additionally, another gutter would have to be installed to take the drain water away and from a further distance. The fodder is probably a savings over the pellets in the long run, but the ease of the pellets overall weighs out. Since the chickens and pigs need more than pellets, the fodder for them will be more advantageous so the fodder during the winter months will strictly be for them and what used to be fed to the goats will now feed the pigs and chickens both meals a day.

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