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MBFI tackles the ins and outs of winter pasturing

From swath grazing to corn grazing, geothermal wells to motion sensor water pumps, farmers got a taste of their extended grazing options earlier this month

Beef producers should all consider some type of extended grazing, even if it only adds a few weeks to the season.

That’s according to Manitoba Agriculture livestock extension Shawn Cabak, one of the speakers at the latest producer-focused workshop from Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives near Brookdale.

Attendees took home the pros and cons of winter grazing and winter watering options Dec. 7.

“There’s a number of different extended grazing practices that a producer can consider, whether it’s stockpiled storage, grazing a second-cut hayfield, corn grazing, swath grazing, bale grazing. It depends what kind of resources they have and what they’re interested in,” Cabak said. “They all work for different producers and some producers practise a number of different extended grazing options.”

Winter feed costs are the largest expense for most beef producers and the more cattle can forage, the less feed must be provided, winter grazing advocates say. Others have pointed to fertility and nutrient benefits or a drop in manure-hauling costs as benefits. Winter grazing sites have exhibited nutrient jumps, since cattle drop manure and urine in the field.

That reasoning makes marginal land a prime candidate for winter grazing, Cabak said, since the farmer will see more benefit than on already well-nourished soil.

Different approaches

At MBFI, cattle spend all winter in the field through a mix of grazing styles. The herd is moved from summer grazing in September, spending a month in a hayfield after its second cut before being moved on to swath grazing in November. Corn grazing takes the herd through the first few months of winter, before finishing up with bale grazing from February until the end of May.

In all cases, producers were warned to provide at least two-to-one mineral for the herd.

Not all of those options come with the same cost impact.

At MBFI last year, bale grazing cost the least, at $1.85 per head per day, compared to corn grazing at $2.02 and swath grazing at $2.95, although Cabak noted that swath grazing cost seemed inflated compared to previous experience.

What’s the right system?

Grazing second-cut hayfields, stubble or corn stover may be a starting point for winter grazing newcomers, Cabak said. While not robust enough for lactating cows, corn residue may contain three to five per cent protein and TDN in the low to mid-50 per cent range.

“With a lot of those practices, whether it’s grazing second cut, stover or crop residue, there’s minimal cost. It’s the cost of a fence around the field, and then the cattle may get two to three weeks of extra grazing at very little cost,” he said.

Swath grazing was tagged for the very end of the regular grazing season, since late season comes with nitrate risk and may be limited by fall weather, producers heard Dec. 7. Seed timing might add another hurdle, since swaths risk being spoiled by weather if cut too soon.

Corn grazing has attracted producers with its high yield and nutritive value, although Cabak noted that the practice only makes economic sense if there are, in fact, high yields.

Farmers were told to give cattle three to four days per field section, long enough that they will start eating stalks rather than gorging on cobs. That same grain overload concern has led experts to transition cattle with hay before letting them loose in the corn.

Bale grazing

Corn grazing is still an emerging practice in Manitoba, but bale grazing is nothing new. Bales can be placed all at once in the fall or moved in one at a time every week to 10 days, presenters said Dec. 7. Fall placement is convenient, but has greater risk of wildlife loss and may catch snow.

Cabak told producers to make sure bales are placed on their sides, not on their ends, to reduce loss from hay sheeting off the bale and being stamped into the ground.

The provincial livestock expert favours a 30- to 40-bale-per-acre concentration, spaced between 33-38 feet apart, for both economic and environmental reasons, he said.

While producers have pointed to higher soil nutrients on bale grazing sites, the practice has also raised some environmental red flags. Nutrients cannot filter while the ground is frozen, Mitchell Timmerman, provincial agri-ecosystems specialist, said, and run-off might steal those nutrients from the field and lead to water quality issues. Bale grazing should be kept from creeks and low-laying areas for that reason, he said.

At 30 alfalfa-grass bales per acre (1,250 pounds each with 14 per cent protein), Manitoba Agriculture estimates that 510 pounds of nitrogen, 51 pounds of phosphorus and 434 pounds of potassium will be returned to the field.

More than that is pushing the envelope of environmental responsibility, Cabak said.

Rolling out bales may spread nutrients better, although it also adds cost, he added.

At the same time, a better spread may mean a better forage crop the following year.

At MBFI, unrolled bale sites returned 979 pounds of dry matter per acre the next year, an 81 per cent yield jump.

Timmerman stressed that bale grazing sites should be moved from year to year to spread the nutrient load.

Avoiding Bambi

Extended grazing will draw wildlife, producers heard Dec. 7, something that might impact which grazing practices are practical in high-wildlife areas.

In particular, swath grazing and corn grazing might end up feeding the wildlife as much as the cattle.

There is little that can be done to avoid the problem, Cabak said, although bale grazing might help producers dodge wildlife issues if bales are brought out as needed.

The best winter grazing system will still run into problems if the waterer freezes.

Ray Bittner, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture was on hand Dec. 7 to run down winter watering options.

Bittner had few good things to say about dugouts, whether in winter or summer. The water is not as clean, he said. Cattle risk foot rot, water may be unpalatable and cattle may fall through the ice and drown.

“If you’re serious about the cattle business, you should be serious about getting good water to the cattle too,” he said.

Producers may use an eight-foot-deep pipe system to source a thermo sink waterer, he said. The system stores water in three separately insulated columns, extending into the ground. The middle column acts as a reservoir and the outside columns are topped by drinking bowls.

High turnover

That system works best with large herds where there is more constant water disturbance, he said.

“The more gallons of water you take out of it in a day — and the longer period of time over the day — leaves less hours for it to cool down and develop ice,” he said.

“If you are going to put a thermo sink in, I encourage you to put it against a fence or in some place up against a natural obstacle rather than in the middle of the corridor,” he later added. “Cows can walk. They can walk half a mile.”

Cattle who balk at the distance will often eat snow, he added.

Smaller herds may prefer a pump-up system.

The motion-activated system will pump water from a buried and insulated reservoir when a cow approaches, letting it drain back underground when the animal leaves.

“It actually works better if you’re a little farther away from the cows, from the feed to the water, because then the cows drop some of the stuff out of their mouth before they put it into your water,” Bittner said.

Water sourced from a portable shed, geothermal waterers and solar or wind systems — which carry the advantage of being totally remote and needing no hydro or pipelines, but are less reliable and expensive to maintain — are also options, he said.

Ray Bittner, Manitoba Agriculture livestock specialist, takes participants through the ins and outs of a thermo sink winter watering system north of Brandon.
photo: Alexis Stockford

About the author

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Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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