Keeping the cows fed all winter can be a real chore.
First, you have to remember to keep the tractor plugged in so it will start when it’s needed.
If it’s an old junker, you might want to keep a can of ether handy, too, for a good snort up the intake when it’s really cold outside. (That’s for the tractor, not the operator.)
When – not if – you have a breakdown, just hope it doesn’t leave you turning wrenches out in God’s Great Garage.
It’s better if you can limp back to the heated shop, but if you don’t make it, you might be able to tow it there with another tractor. But first, you have to see if you can get one started.
Best of all, don’t bother keeping track of the diesel fuel bill – it’s just too painful.
These are just some of the potential pitfalls of winter tractor dependency that Clearwaterarea rancher Don Guilford has avoided by taking the time to perfect his bale grazing system.
First off, he openly admits that he didn’t invent the system. What he did achieve he told producers attending the recent Manitoba Beef Producers annual meeting, is take all of the tips he learned at seminars over the years and figure out a way to make it work on his ranch since the mid-1980s.
“I don’t like work, period,” joked Guilford, who feeds 200 cows each winter, a job that takes about 20 minutes per week, mainly moving the hot wire from one row of bales onto the next.
“When we are done placing those bales, that’s the last fuel we’ll burn to feed those cows. We’ve not only eliminated the diesel fuel costs, but also the wear and tear on the tractor.”
Guilford, who uses only sisal twine, puts the bales 25 feet apart in either direction in straight rows in one of his typically long, narrow, cross-fenced paddocks that in summer serve as rotational grazing cells.
He uses portable windbreak panels for shelter, and picks a new spot every year with the goal of eventually covering all of his pastures with a good shot of leftover manure and urine fertilizer to make the grass grow thick and lush.
STRAND OF AIRCRAFT CABLE
Instead of a wire or tape, Guilford strings one strand of aircraft cable from one fence to the other. A homemade corkscrew anchor is screwed into the two bales on the end of each row end which secures the cable in place. Five-foot-long rebar rods are driven into each bale to hold up the middle, with a good-quality insulator on each.
The fence is powered by a Gallagher electric fencer hooked up to a single 12-volt battery kept in an insulated box and charged with 94 watts of solar panels. Grounding for the fence is provided by two, 10-foot galvanized rods driven into the ground.
The cattle are insulated from shocks by a layer of snow, but the fact that they are always inside electric fences – summer and winter – means they have learned to respect it. One year, a single cow kept going under the wire, but he solved that problem by getting rid of her.
STRAW WORKS TOO
It doesn’t even have to be good hay. Straw works, too, he said.
“We’re flexible. If we can’t get hay, we feed straw along with about 10 pounds of barley or screening pellets per head to carry the cows through winter,” said Guilford, adding that the supplement is doled out with a three-quarter-ton pickup equipped with a drag auger.
One year, the cows wolfed down all the winter wheat straw. But another year, whether it was the variety or chemical residues on the winter wheat straw, as time went on, they wasted a good portion of it, leaving about a foot of all over the site. Guilford didn’t get worked up about it, however.
“Basically, it just took one more year before the grass grew through it. It eventually turns into organic matter and nutrients which feed the soil,” he said.
Soil tests done by the local farm production adviser and the University of Manitoba show that nutrient levels on his bale grazing sites are very high, which explains the lush grass, even though it is very light, sandy land.
Before bale grazing, nitrogen levels were extremely low, at an average of about 28 pounds per acre. After, it was a whopping 956 pounds per acre. Sulphur, potash and micronutrients are up, too. Soil tests at four-foot depth show no signs of leaching, he added.
“There’s lots of concerns about bale grazing and spreading manure on the land in the wintertime, but I feel very strongly that this is a beneficial management practice that can have huge impact on the bottom line of cattle producers,” said Guilford.
When he bought a new 1,200- acre parcel in 2000, about seven miles from his home quarter, it could only support 100 head from spring to fall. Now, after bale grazing on 20-acre sites each winter, he says those spots will handle four to five times as many cattle as before.
The trash cover left over prevents evaporation loss during the summer, which helps drought-proof the land, and the higher nutrient levels in the soil translate into better protein and energy values in the forage grown on it.
“Once you’ve bale grazed on that land, I think you’ll have improved production for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “With 1,200 acres, if we do 20 acres a year, I’ll have to live another 60 years to cover the whole ranch.” daniel. [email protected]
“Whenwearedoneplacingthosebales,that’s thelastfuelwe’llburntofeedthosecows. We’venotonlyeliminatedthedieselfuelcosts, butalsothewearandtearonthetractor.”
– DON GUILFORD