By Harry Brook
It might seem to be the wrong time of year to discuss this topic, but planning for extending the grazing season for 2021 starts now. The single biggest cost to raising a calf is the winter feeding cost for the cow. The longer you can keep your cattle out grazing in the field, the lower your machinery, fuel, and manure disposal costs will be. Extending your grazing season means the cows work for you, rather than you working for the cows. There are several ways you can extend the grazing season.
Extending the grazing season is not just about the forages, it also affects your total livestock management. To make it work you need to have the right kind of cattle at the right stage of pregnancy on the right forage type. One way to achieve this is dormant grazing. This requires leaving some pasture growth during the growing season for the fall and winter when plants are dormant. Different plant species will retain different levels of feed value, depending on stage of growth when the killing frost hit. You need to know the feed value of the stored forage as it will decline in feed value over the winter. Feed testing is a good way to ensure the cattle are getting what they need.
Another approach is swath grazing. You seed an annual crop late, then swath it so it can be grazed in the winter months. Using an electric fence, moved frequently, is a good way to get the most out of the swath grazing and keep down the feed wastage. The crop winters quite well in the swath and does not lose much feed value when covered by snow.
Corn grazing has gained popularity over the last few years because of the volume of grazing it produces. Corn grazing works best when you have lots of heat over the growing season. In cool seasons, oats or barley can be more economical at providing winter grazing as corn produces best with heat. You should use the right corn varieties with lower heat unit requirements. About half the feed value in corn grazing is in the cobs so it is important they mature to the right stage prior to a frost. Corn grazing is expensive to get started but, if you use the same piece of land, year after year, fertilizer requirements will drop as most of the nutrients pass through the cattle and are cycled back into the soil as manure.
For both corn grazing and swath grazing, it is imperative to limit the area of the field the cattle can graze at one time, otherwise feed wastage can be over 25%. Also, too large a paddock or too long in one piece can result in extremes in feed intake quality. Once in a new piece, cattle will take all the heads or cobs first. Feed quality from heads and cobs far exceeds the needs of the pregnant cows in the mid-trimester. The longer they stay in a paddock, the poorer the quality of the feed they consume as all the best forage has been consumed first. However, you still need them to clean up most of the forage to make it affordable. Therefore, you need to size your grazing fields so they can clean them up in 3 – 7 days.
Another grazing method is bale grazing out in the field, using a hot wire to limit the number of bales consumed. This saves the cost of bale hauling and manure hauling, but still involves machinery costs to cut and bale. This winter, conventional feeding costs are running $2.25 to $2.50/day/pregnant cow. With extended grazing, you should be able to reduce that by half.
Whatever grazing strategies you use, make sure you know your costs and expected savings from extending the grazing season. Talk to neighbours who use some of these techniques. Call me at the County at 780-384-4138. To hear how some Alberta ranchers do it, click on the links below.