Extended grazing has become shorthand for keeping cattle out longer than the neighbours — but should producers be looking to push the envelope at the other end of the season too?
Some of the province’s most ardent champions of the practices say it might be easiest to grow the grazing season into the spring.
Why it matters: “Extended grazing” is usually translated into pushing the grazing season longer in the fall, but some of Manitoba’s grazing management champions say carefully managed spring grazing can be a winner too.
Brian Harper says that’s exactly what he’s been doing. His family’s Circle H Farms earned this year’s national TESA award for environmental stewardship from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. During the summer they wholeheartedly embrace high stock density grazing. The cattle move into an area and graze intensely for a short period, before being moved on, while the pasture then gets a long rest to recover.
But alongside these practices, which have been tipped for increasing organic matter, biodiversity and forage performance, they’ve also worked to stretch the season out as long as possible. Not only are their animals out long after the traditional grazing period, they also go out earlier.
“We’re always looking from the back end, but there’s nothing wrong with extending it from the front end as well,” he told attendees during a recent extended grazing workshop at Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives north of Brandon.
His herd is bale grazed during the winter, something he says has never been a problem despite common concerns that snow might get too deep for cattle to access and manoeuvre around the field. In fact, he argued, drifts have come more than halfway up the bale in the past before he has been forced to cut a trail to and around the bale. Conversely, he says those years might have provided some of his better results, as cattle were less prone to travel and spread out the bale.
It is partly those grazing systems, along with stockpiled forage through the spring, which allows Harper to beat his neighbours to the pasture when snow starts to melt.
Harper’s cattle were in the field as of April 18 this year, while many of Manitoba’s beef farmers struggled to get their herds out of the yard throughout May. A dry winter and cold spate made for slow pastures this spring, leaving Manitoba’s cattle industry searching for extra feed.
Farmers who put out cattle too early this year risked stressing their pasture and losing capacity later in the year, provincial extension staff warned at the time. Staff like Pam Iwanchysko, a provincial livestock specialist based in Dauphin, noted that some cattle were being turned out on pasture that had not greened enough to sustain them.
Harper, however, says he has noticed no such thing, despite his own early turnout.
His planned grazing system may help combat that risk, he added. Under his system, a harshly grazed parcel of land is then left alone for months to recover, and the same parcel of land is unlikely to see the same stress the following year. Harper is also a believer in disruption, constantly changing up variables like stocking rate, grazing intensity in each paddock and time of year when that paddock is grazed to avoid cumulating stress on a certain piece of land.
His mix of grazing strategies also feeds into his ability to extend in the spring, he contends. Studies on his land have shown a jump in organic matter, Solvita test results for organic matter had jumped from “low” to “high” within three years on one piece of land under study, and the same parcel saw increased nitrogen and phosphorus mineralization. In turn, he says, his grazing practices and increased soil health have led to warmer soils in the spring, jump-starting growth.
Matt Van Steelandt of Triple V Ranch near Melita takes a similar stance on spring grazing. Extended grazing into the spring may be one of the easiest forms of extended grazing, he argued, as well as being critical to allowing his herd to calve on grass.
“Where can we set acres aside to push biomass into the off season?” was the question he posed.
Like Harper, Van Steedandt turns to stockpiled forage, although he notes that months of winter can deteriorate feed, and that high-quality forage makes it easier to assure quality come spring.
“The best thing we need to do is plan,” he said.
Is extended grazingworth it?
Manitoba’s 2019 beef cow-calf cost-of-production figures say farmers will spend 36 per cent of their costs (the largest proportion of cost registered) on feed, counting 195 days of winter feeding and 35 days of extended grazing.
Producers who push that extended grazing window might see that cost drop. According to the same cost-of-production report, the province is forecasting a $2.14 winter feeding cost per head per day, compared to 83 cents a day of extended grazing.
All extended grazing practices fell well below that $2.14-per-day cost, he said at an extended grazing workshop north of Brandon in early December.
The reality may be yet more stark this year, Fedak said, given the province’s feed challenges. Figures based on seven-cents-a-pound hay, show a $2.90-per-head-per-day cost for 195 winter feeding days, compared to 84 cents a day in 35 extended grazing days and 96 cents a day for 135 days regular grazing.
For Ryan Boyd, a mixed farmer near Forrest, the argument certainly holds merit. Boyd turns to a long list of grazing strategies every year in an effort to keep cattle in the field, including corn grazing. He likes its easy energy and attractive cost-profit ratio, offset by the risk of an unbalanced ration if cattle gorge themselves on cobs. It also requires more careful management with supplemental feed higher in protein.
Bale grazing, swath grazing and stockpiled forage have provided less management-intensive options, while Boyd also experiments with crop residue and cover crop grazing.
The extended grazing is a “no-brainer” if hay stays below five cents a pound, Boyd said.