BSE wasn’t the only crisis that Grande Clairiere beef producer Gerry Bertholet faced in 2003; the native grass in this part of Manitoba was so dry that year he was feeding cows in August.
It was around that time Bertholet struck up conversations with staff from Manitoba’s Critical Wildlife Habitat Program about the native grassland on his Maple Lake Stock Farms – and wound up taking in a workshop on twice-over rotational grazing systems.
At first he didn’t agree with what North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Centre range scientist Lee Manske had to say, said Bertholet, who has a 300-head cow-calf operation made up of commercial and purebred Simmental and Angus.
But the more he thought about Manske’s approach– co-ordinating grazing periods with grass growth stages – the more interested he became.
“When I started to think about what he’d said about the biology of the grass, it made sense,” he said.
So in 2005, with cross-fences already on a site of native grass called Pluff’s Pasture and with support from the Critical Habitat program, Gerry and wife Linda set out to try the twice-over.
This past six years they’ve seen benefits in both extended grazing time and carrying capacity, Gerry told the Manitoba Forage Council’s August pasture tour visiting their farm and Pluff’s Pasture Aug. 3.
Before adopting this grazing system, they’d kept anywhere from 60 to 70 cow-calf pairs on this site, Gerry said.
“And we were feeding cows by September,” he said. “It was just overused.”
Now the couple rotates their cows through six paddocks twice per season, and with the improvement to the grass through regrowth are able to keep them out from May to November. And there’s still plenty of grass left when they’re done.
“It’s just been like night and day for the grass.”
Rotational grazing systems typically employ anywhere from three to six pasture native range systems. The Bertholets split their 255 acres of native grassland pasture into four paddocks, and created two additional ones with another 65 acres.
They initially cut back to 35 cow-calf pairs – which was a tough thing to do, says Gerry – but the numbers have been climbing ever since. They now have 53 cow-calf pairs in four paddocks from June 1 to October 15. Each is grazed twice during that time frame.
In the first rotation, the cattle are moved every eight to 11 days, and during the second rotation they’re moved every 20 to 22 days. The rotation can vary somewhat depending on Bertholet’s assessment of the impact they’re having on the grass.
The other two paddocks (on the 65 acres) are tall fescue and low-lying native grassland and used to extend the grazing period another month in spring (May) and from October to the end of November.
“We usually get another month to five weeks grazing out of them,” said Bertholet. They’ve cut the low spots from these native paddocks where the cattle haven’t eaten the old grass.
The couple keeps careful weight gain records to measure the productivity of the pasture. Each year the cattle are weighed – going out at spring, mid-July, and coming off in fall. Records from May 21 to July 19 (58 days) for 2011 show an average daily gain of 3.14 pounds for calves and 1.64 pounds for the cows.
They’re continuously tweaking the system. This summer, they decided to split two of the six paddocks in half, in order to get more uniform grazing. They also cut hay off these split paddocks for bale grazing.
When to rotate the cows is a decision made “by the calendar” with some adjustments depending on whether they decide to cut any of the paddocks.
“We start the native grass grazing on June 1 and we have to be over all the paddocks by July 15,” said Bertholet.
During that first rotation the animals are in each paddock 12 days, and remain for 24 days during the second rotation.
“If we go through all the paddocks that way, come Oct. 15 we’ll be over all the paddocks equally and that will be the end of the grazing season on the native grass.”
Overall, Bertholet said he’s quite satisfied how it’s all worked out.
“With proper grass management we have benefited from better grass, and more gains,” he said.
He’s less concerned about dry years like ’03 now too.
“If we had one dry year, I know we could get through the grazing season without any problem with the same stocking rates,” he said. “That’s because there’s so much mass there with regrowth.”
“WhenIstartedto thinkaboutwhat he’dsaidaboutthe biologyofthegrass, itmadesense.”
– GERRY BERTHOLET