On the Boyd ranch near Brookdale, the grass is lush, green and stirrup high. It’s like the cowboy’s prayer come true. Even the solar-powered pump pulls water up into a portable trough from a grassy-banked, tree-sheltered water hole that runs cool, clear and deep.
A visitor from the parched southwest might suspect such phenomenal pasture productivity is the result of righteous living – or maybe a pact with the devil.
But the real reason the grass is so lush has more to do with careful management, Ryan Boyd told visitors on the MZTRA grazing club tour recently.
Three years ago, Ryan and his father Jim decided to take the paddock out of annual cropping and instead seeded alfalfa, meadow brome, orchard grass, creeping red fescue, and cicer milkvetch, with the aim of increasing their 3,000-acre farm’s profitability.
The half-section pasture is divided up into long, narrow, 10-acre electric fenced paddocks, with a water pipeline running down the centre.
In September last year, 200 custom grassers, tipping the scales at 900 pounds, were rotated through the paddocks, which was then left to regrow.
Then in the first week of April, some 400 head of 650-pound yearlings were run through the paddocks. A portable electric wire that split each paddock in two was lifted every day after supper to let them in to graze the back half. Then the Boyds opened it up again to graze the whole 10-acre chunk overnight.
Until new growth started to appear later in the month, the yearlings were given three bales a day to supplement their main dish, which was stockpiled grass left over from the fall.
On the few days when it rained, he was careful to restrict moves to only once a day, widening the grazing pressure out to 25,000 pounds of beef per acre from his target of 50,000 lbs./ ac., so as not to punch out the forage growth too heavily.
“We shoot for about 90 days of recovery. This, what you’re looking at, is about 60 days,” said Boyd, adding that it was last grazed May 7.
The alfalfa will be borderline ripe by the time the herd moves through again in two to three weeks, but he expects enough lush growth underneath will balance out the coarse material that they’ll likely trample.
“If they leave it, it’s not a big deal. The more stuff that we can get hammered into the ground, the better it’s going to grow back,” he said.
When alfalfa growth is heavy, the risk of bloat is real, but losses are kept under less than one per cent in their herd, which numbers 130 cows, 400 yearlings and 200 custom grazers on about 1,100 acres. So far this year, they’ve lost five animals.
The higher gain with alfalfa cancels out the losses from bloat, he said, adding that steers can gain as much as three pounds per day on it.
Besides using Alfasure in the watering system when the alfalfa is particularly lush in June, Boyd uses a Brix refractometer for bloat risk management and to measure pasture health.
“This land was all annual crop for a number of years, and I don’t know if it’s that the soil biology is not really up to speed yet, but although the stuff looks really healthy, we’re finding out that it’s not really that good, because we’ve got foot rot problems like crazy and the bloat is really bad, especially in the middle of June,” he said.
He suspects the foot rot problem is from excessive molybdenum levels in the forage, due to the high pH soil that is tying up the copper. Although he hopes better soil biology will eventually improve the balance, he has had success by supplementing copper sulphate in the salt ration.
To judge whether it’s safe to graze, he squeezes the juice out of a sample of new-growth alfalfa onto the Brix tester and holds it up to the light. A low Brix reading of 3-4 is a red flag for bloat risk, especially if the cattle are allowed to get hungry.
This spring, Brix levels stayed high at 7-8 and there were no signs of bloat. But then a half-inch of rain fell, the Brix value plunged from 8-9 to 3-4 and cows started to blow up from the wet alfalfa.
“With the Brix, at least you know. The alfalfa looked no different visually from the afternoon before, but by the next morning it was dynamite,” he said.
As for pasture health, he noticed after doing a spring foliar spray application of two litres per acre of ammonium polyphosphate, sea salt, copper, zinc and magnesium sulphate that the Brix immediately spiked from 7-8 to 14 on the grass, and slightly lower on the alfalfa.
The foliar feeding cost about $14 per acre, but he figured it was worth it to boost the function of microbial soil life to the point that it can take over and feed the forage crop by cycling manure and trampled forage growth.
Hay prices may be high due to the megadrought in Alberta, but Boyd will resist the temptation to cash in.
“If you hay this, then you’re right back to Square 1. It’ll take three years of grazing to get it back to this point,” he said, adding that the manure, urine and trampled grasses left over from high-density grazing are better fertilizer than money can buy because they supply the full scope of plant needs.
On their farm’s light, gravelly Newdale soil, phosphorus is the main limiting factor. If they can increase organic matter by even half a percentage point, Boyd figures that would be worth hundreds of pounds of available organic P per acre.
“People say that takes a lifetime to do, but I don’t think it will under this type of situation,” he said.
Two-thirds of the Boyds’ land is still in annual crops because prices are still good, but the $70-$90 per acre from grazing is still competitive considering the much lower input costs – especially because they are able to run cows on grass from April 1 until Christmas.
Custom grazing by the pound of gain is also a big money-maker, at a rate of 43 cents per pound.
“We’ve got a ways to go before we’re extremely profitable, but the future is looking bright,” he said. [email protected]