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Putting spurge on the menu for research — and cattle

With an incoming learning centre and research ranging from rodent control to grazing systems and leafy spurge, 2017 looks to be busy for Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives

Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives (MBFI) is ramping up for 2017. Preparations are underway for a long list of projects at the collaborative’s three test farms outside of Brandon.

“Some of them are continuing projects from last year,” said MBFI president Ramona Blyth. “Research is never just done in one year, so there’s the carry-over into years two and three on some of the projects and then we have a few others that have been expanding their projects.”

One of those projects is dealing with leafy spurge, the scourge of many pastures in western Manitoba. Common knowledge is that spurge is low on the menu for cattle and it’s considered poisonous to most livestock, although it can be grazed by goats and sheep. Manitoba Agriculture’s weed database says that livestock grazing leafy spurge may become photosensitive and the sap is irritating to skin. In cattle, producers have reported sores on the mouth and irritation to the digestive system.

Despite this, Jane Thornton, lead researcher of MBFI’s spurge-training project, hopes cattle can be taught to successfully graze the weed.

Year two of the project is about to launch from MBFI’s First Street Pasture site.

The training regimen was developed by Kathy Voth, a U.S. speaker and educator on training livestock to eat weeds. It attempts to entice cattle to eat leafy spurge, thus recouping pasture lands plagued by the invasive plant. The project would see spurge in five per cent of an animal’s diet and hopes to determine if infestations can be decreased through cattle grazing.

Adding spurge to supplements

“They get about a week training period and each day they get a new type of feed supplement,” research co-ordinator Kristelle Harper said. “It’s new and different for them so they get used to eating different supplements or different things, and then at the end of the training period we actually clip leafy spurge and put that into the barrels.”

With the animals already accustomed to different supplements in their feed, the cattle are less likely to refuse the leafy spurge. Once spurge-eating behaviour is established, the herd is turned onto a small area containing the weed for a day of intensive grazing. The experience reinforces the idea of actively grazing leafy spurge, after which the animals are taken to the paddocks to graze freely.

Last year, five cow-calf pairs and 50 heifers went through the training. Sampling through the year showed cattle were eating about seven per cent of available spurge stems.

Voth has written extensively about her first forays into training cattle to eat leafy spurge in 2005.

“By the end of the summer, the cows had demonstrated that they could and would eat leafy spurge in pasture and I was still seeing no negative effects,” she says on her website, Livestock for Landscapes.

Voth has noted, however, that diverse forage variety will be critical in leafy spurge grazing.

The project now looks to the next generation. Animals trained last summer now have calves on the ground and Thornton hopes to determine if the knowledge can be transferred from mother to calf.

Twenty-five replacement heifers will be added to the herd this summer after also going through the training program.

Harper hopes the project may help control leafy spurge on MBFI properties without resorting to herbicide, which may damage forage growth. The weed has had a detrimental impact on the First Street Pasture’s productivity, Harper has said.

Rotational grazing, soil health and low-cost pasture land regeneration are also being explored at the First Street pasture.

A variety of other projects

Calving is ongoing at MBFI’s Johnson Research Farm, just east of the First Street Pasture. The location will see a list of research projects, ranging from gopher management (which tested various traps last year and determined that trapping should take place in early spring and August), cow-calf needle-free vaccination and comparing forage varieties in extended grazing systems.

The forage evaluation is part of a larger project with fields in Arborg, Carman, Roblin, Saskatoon and Lanigan, Sask. Cattle were moved onto the site in late 2016. Results will be measured on quality, spring regrowth and tolerance for snow cover in various forages.

To the north, MBFI will return once again to the Brookdale Research Farm, provided by Ducks Unlimited. The 400 acres of forage and cropland onsite will also see extended grazing systems, along with research into polycrops, grazing strategies, energy-dense annual forages and the effect of different grazing systems on cicer milkvetch.

“We have so many projects, which is exciting and keeps us all on our toes and busy. It’s hard to just pinpoint favourites,” Harper said.

Learning centre debut

Work on the Brookdale Research Farm MBFI Learning Centre is expected to start in June, with a grand opening in late fall or early winter. The project was approved September 2016.

Blyth said the building will include a classroom space and kitchen and programming will range from food sourcing to sustainability in agriculture and farm innovations.

“The learning centre’s always been part of the project, because we want to be able to engage with producers and do workshops — and not only producers, it’s the youth, the university/college students, 4-H, Ag in the Classroom,” Blyth said.

A capital campaign is underway to raise support for the project.

“There are just so many things that the learning centre will be able to offer us,” Blyth said. “It’ll be the hub that will engage everyone.”

MBFI is a collaboration between the Manitoba Beef Producers, Manitoba Agriculture, Ducks Unlimited, and Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association.

About the author

Reporter

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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