Cranky old-timers take note: putting up hay and silage to get pampered cattle through the winter is a relatively new development.
In fact, not too long ago, before barbed wire and diesel fuel, buffalo roamed the Great Plains all winter long.
The herds survived and thrived, mainly because Mother Nature weeded out the weaklings.
Then, in the 1800s, cowboys drove vast herds of cattle to the Alberta grasslands to feed railway workers and the gold rush miners.
Some stayed and founded the first big Alberta ranches. At the turn of the century, they grazed year round, using a “graze or die” strategy that admittedly in tough years saw a good percentage of their herds doing the latter.
Then, the pendulum swung back, and the fashion for a few decades was to winter cattle in barns. By the 1960s, with the advent of tractors, mowers, baling machines and cheap fuel, they moved the cattle back outside – but only as far as the corral or feedyard.
Now, the cutting edge is incorporating new technology, such as portable electric fences, winter watering systems and new management strategies to cut production costs and put cattle back out on the range for the winter months.
Progressive ranchers are doing it because they’re tired of losing money. Putting up hay isn’t cheap, and every extra day on pasture without feeding hay is money saved.
“We’re really not reinventing the wheel. We’re using some of the knowledge that has been around since forever,” said Stan MacFarlane, an AESC (formerly PFRA) researcher based in Beausejour, in a presentation on the hows and whys of extended grazing practices during the annual Provincial Grazing Tour last week.
“Now, we’re moving back to the field again, but with a little more knowledge and a little more management.”
To achieve the goal of extended grazing, ranchers are looking at their management, land base, soil and taking a hard look at herd genetics.
Having an aerial photo of the ranch layout helps in organizing a strategy for watering and flexible fencing systems, stockpiling grass, planning annual crops for late season in-field grazing crops such as corn, or bale grazing when the snow is deep.
“Instead of thinking that you’re bringing a bale out to feed the cow, you’re bringing a big package of nutrients,” he said.
Steve Shumka, who has taken over the farm near Gilbert Plains from his father, is taking a new approach to raising cattle, trying out many of the holistic management techniques that his father never considered.
On one of his pastures, there’s a well-built electric fence, and lush, rich grass that he credits to putting nutrients from hay bales back out on the land.
Part of that is reconsidering what is “waste” and the value of cycling nutrients back into the soil.
Three years ago, he put out some poor-quality alfalfa bales, and found that four to five inches of hay were left on the ground. Some digging revealed that so-called waste was breaking down into a thick layer of thatch. Now, filled with grass roots, it’s feeding this year’s pasture growth.
“It all adds to the organic bank,” said Shumka.
Earlier on the tour, Pam Iwanchysko, a MAFRI farm production adviser who led the tour to farms in the Dauphin area, said that part of her job is to try to convince farmers to adopt better grazing practices in order to increase beef productivity on the same land base.
One of the hardest-won converts was her own father, Ken Yakielashek, who along with Pam’s brother Dean run 2,000-acre Circle Y Farms with 350 head of cattle near Sifton.
“The hardest job was convincing my father, but obviously, after 13 years of my career, I have finally got there,” she said with a smile. “So there’s hope.”
Standing in an intensively grazed field on her father’s farm, she noted that across the fence, was a continuously grazed pasture with very little species diversity.
Underneath her feet was a profusion of legume and grass species, including alfalfa, cicer milk vetch and tall fescue.
Rob Davidson, a grazing consultant and Powerflex fencing systems dealer from Creston, B. C., said stopping the wholesale abuse of pastures is the only way to turn the fortunes of the ranching community around.
“We turn cows out onto a continuously grazed pasture and beat the hell out of it forever. Then we wonder why we’ve got invasive species coming in, and we wonder why they don’t produce like they used to,” he said. “Well, it’s because we’ve tortured them to death.”
Learning how to use the new tools available, such as portable electric fences, is the key to making money in the cattle business, he added.
Many people, especially the younger generation, are proving that they are up to the task, and in some cases making up to $600 per acre.
“There’s a whole new wave of people who are doing very well because they are managing their pastures differently,” he said. “They are managing them for maximum production, growth and sustainability.”
Getting the hay out of your diet is the key to making a good living in the cattle business, Davidson added, and ranchers all over North America are finding ways to get it done by “doubling and tripling” their pasture carrying capacity and saving up grass to extend to their grazing season into the fall.
“You can grow bananas in Swan River. You just can’t do it profitably,” he said. “We need to match our grass, our cows and management with the climate.” [email protected]
“We’rereallynot reinventingthewheel. We’reusingsomeof theknowledgethat hasbeenaround sinceforever.”
– STAN MACFARLANE