Grazing tips from the north
December 22, 2008
I was invited to participate in two conferences during the first week of December in Alberta. Hoping to garner some sympathy, I returned with the story that it was never above 8 degrees while I was there. While that was true, 8 degrees Celsius is equivalent to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. I was really treated to balmy Alberta conditions! I had an email from my hosts this week and it was -41 – which happens to be identical on either scale. It put our minus 18 in perspective!
While I enjoyed the conferences in Medicine Hat and Edmonton and visiting about strategic ranch planning, the real education was getting to spend time with producers and see their wintering practices first hand. While conventional hay feeding is still practiced, alternatives have been widely adopted among progressive cattlemen working hard to control costs.
Like our area, the landscape is a mosaic of pasture and cropland, although the fraction of cropland generally increases as you move from east to west across the southern part of the province. Spring wheat, canola and barley are major crops and most of them are produced using what the Canadians refer to as “zero till.” This land use pattern provides opportunities to integrate grain production with winter livestock feeding.
The first alternative approach I got to see was “bunch” grazing. A platform equipped with a counterbalance provides a mechanism which accumulates straw and chaff behind the combine, dumping it periodically in piles or “bunches” on the stubble. I found that a U.S. patent was issued for such a device in 1949, so this is definitely not rocket science. Accumulating the crop aftermath in piles has two advantages. The lightest materials, the chaff, are suspended by the coarser straw instead of immediately filtering to the soil surface. The chaff is the most nutritious portion of the residue and this procedure keeps it more accessible to grazing livestock. Straw bunches also create a taller profile than windrows, so the feed is more accessible with deeper snow cover. By optimizing the size of bunches and rationing access to the piles with electric fence, residue is more likely to be eaten than used for bedding, minimizing the likelihood that deep residue will be a problem in planting the following crop.
A second widely used winter feeding procedure was swath grazing. Fields to be used for swath grazing are identified at planting time. A combination of oats and barley is quite common. While late planting may allow later harvest and less exposure to weathering, research has generally demonstrated that the yield benefit of timely planting is beneficial. In the fields I saw, high yields provided swaths that had a sufficiently high profile so that no further raking or manipulation was necessary. Feed loss from wind was not evident.
I helped install posts in a quarter section field that would divide the field into four “columns” with semi-permanent single strand electric wire. Using a hydraulic post pounder, three people installed the posts in just over two hours. A single strand of wire would be extended between these semi-permanent stretches and used to ration the swaths. This allocation is made daily or every other day, with no back fence needed. Because the grain cropped can be swathed at a stage that provides very high nutrient content, this procedure is appropriate for growing animals. The operation I saw was using swath grazing to provide for growing steers and replacement heifers. They were also planning to swath graze with cows after calving.
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The last procedure I learned about was bale grazing. Standard large-round bales are used, but the feeding process is less conventional. The operator I visited with no longer owns haying or feeding equipment. He purchases large round bales and uses relatively small equipment to place the bales in a rectangular spacing sometime in the fall. It is necessary to remove the twine once the bales are positioned, providing some “after school income” on one ranch I visited. When it becomes necessary to feed the hay, electric fence is used to control access to the bales. Winter feeding involves starting a four-wheeler (or “quad” to the Canadians), traveling to the bale field, and moving a short electric fence. No tractor to start; no hay to haul. An additional benefit for bale grazing recognized by these cattlemen was the nutrients being added to the pasture where the bales were being fed.
While learning about the procedures being used to reduce winter feed costs was intriguing, the underlying philosophy may be even more important. To the extent possible, these producers were creating ways to reduce their reliance on machinery and petroleum and using inherent livestock mobility both to access feed and distribute manure.
A recent publication from the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta evaluated the costs associated with several alternative wintering approaches. Costs ranged from $0.15 per cow per day for bale grazing, $0.25 for bunch grazing and $0.60 for swath grazing. Conventional hay feeding costs were estimated to be $1.25 per cow day. Even converted to U.S. dollars the advantages of the alternatives are evident! Perhaps the most impressive saving is the reduction in time needed for feeding. Hats off to our neighbors to the north who a learning to work smarter!
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