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Feeding cattle on the cheap


When does one plus one equal four?

It can, according to Duane Thompson, who operates a mixed grain and cattle operation on an eight-section block of land south of Kelliher, Saskatchewan.

Tying up all the loose ends on his farm creates looped synergies for an optimized system that keeps his production costs low and protects him from market swings.

He decided to put his farm mainly into pasture after learning at a seminar years ago that cattle offered huge benefits in lower input costs.

“If I harvest a crop of wheat and I drive it off in a truck, I’m driving about 74 per cent of the nitrogen off the field. If I graze it, I’m only walking off four per cent of the nitrogen,” said Thompson, in a presentation at Ag Days 2009.

Keeping it simple

Having his pastures in a single block simplifies many aspects of Tee Two Land and Cattle Co.’s production system, he said.

Thompson has divided his year into two parts, a growing phase, which begins with calving in two 250-head groups in May-June, and a post-weaning maintenance period when the cow’s nutritional requirements are low.

Calves are weaned at around 550 pounds anytime between mid-September and mid-January, depending on the market, and after a summer of grazing mainly alfalfa, the cows’ heavy back fat gives him leeway to winter them on cheap feeds such as barley chaff and straw.

“To me that’s insurance. I’m not stuck on weaning a calf because it’s my mother’s birthday and we’ve always weaned on that day,” said Thompson. “I can do a lot of things with the cows alone because she doesn’t need as many groceries when she’s all by herself.”

Rotational grazing

The cows and first-calf heifers, weighing mainly over 1,000 pounds, are rotationally grazed in a single group of 600 to 700 head on mainly alfalfa, which he sees as a high-octane fuel that allows them to regain condition in time for rebreeding, produce rich milk, and put on back fat before winter.

“I want my cows to be fat in November. That’s really important in this system, when I’m pushing cows in the winter.”

When the cows are belly deep in alfalfa, bloat is controlled by adding Bovatech to the mineral and the water, which is pumped out of sloughs in a large oil-field tanker truck following the constantly moving herd, even though potholes abound on his land.

“I’ve seen cows with a big full belly walk past three sloughs, come up and drink, let out a big burp and a fart, and walk away,” he said.

“They’ve learned that the water system is just like going to the drugstore and getting some Rolaids. It may sound crazy, but I don’t tip as many over as I used to.”

Making do

Instead of an expensive quad, he bought a written-off SUV for $1,000 and tore the seats out to make room for his three cattle dogs, mineral and supplies.

“We can spend a lot of money on expensive toys, but it’s got a roof, a heater and an Alpine stereo,” he said, adding that with all his land in one block, road travel is minimal.

The cattle have learned to follow the tanker truck, watering system and SUV, which are all hooked together in a single-hitch convoy, which simplifies moves to fresh grass.

Thompson’s secret to wintering cattle on the cheap is based on a device invented by his grandpa, whose cows were fed mainly chaff from the threshing machines of his day.

Barley and canola chaff and straw is collected in a dump wagon and left in piles on the stubble, or brought back to the yard for backgrounding rations for calves.

Stubble grazing

The cattle are wintered on the stubble, and do a good job of cleaning up the straw, leaving no dead spots in the field. On the contrary, he said, by making an extra effort to dump the chaff piles on high spots, he has seen a gradual improvement in organic matter and fertility on his 3,000 acres of rented and owned cropland.

His cows get no grain except when it’s -35C with a wind.

“All my cows have been selected to be forage converters, not grain vats,” he said, adding that show cattle with “big gobs of fat” don’t work as replacement heifers on his farm.

“I compare it to going to L. A., picking up Paris Hilton, bringing her back and saying, ‘Let’s go build a ranch together.’ I’m not sure which one is higher maintenance.”

Some ranchers say that you can’t winter cattle on barley straw with chaff.

Thompson points out that a mature cow’s nutritional needs in second trimester are 7.5 to eight per cent protein and 50 per cent TDN.

Good feed

Barley straw with chaff, which offers 57 per cent TDN and 5.78 per cent protein can fill their needs at low cost if it is boosted with a protein supplement. Canola chaff and pea straw offer even better feed value, he added, but palatability problems require it be mixed with something else.

“I just can’t understand why guys will spend all summer looking at the sky, trying to make hay, and then throw this all away at harvest time,” said Thompson.

During pregnancy checking, cows are visually assessed and divided into two separate wintering herds after weaning: one composed of heifers, first and second calvers, and old cows, and the other good, sound, working cows.

Last year, which was cold but with little snow, the strongest, easy-keeping cattle on rented stubble land were fed only 14 times up until March 7, mainly alfalfa silage and a dash of grain when the weather was cold.

“If I take care of her on the bad days, she’s going to take care of me,” said Thompson.

Electric fencing

Thompson has traded in his big iron for a new high-tech tool: a hand-held fault checker that comes in handy when stringing electric wires to regulate feed consumption. In winter, he uses a snowmobile to quickly reel out hot wires, both poly and high tensile, powered by a portable solar-powered fencer.

“A big strong fencer and a lot of solar panel to keep your batteries up, and you’re good to go,” he said.

Stubble land is rented from a neighbour at 25 cents per head per day, which is five cents above the usual price because he has agreed to let Thompson erect a permanent fence on his land.

The second, weaker herd is kept on barley straw piles for the first half of the winter, then moved onto alfalfa silage dumped in small piles covered with oat hulls, all of which is also wire fed mainly on hillsides with portable windbreaks. The silage is gathered with an old McKee forage harvester, which is the only thing that can pick straw out of the snow.

“I love that machine. I like the fact that it’s not a $40,000 baler,” he said.

Retaining nutrients

Keeping the manure and urine where it is needed most is important, he said, showing a photo of a pile that accidentally ended up in the wrong place when the cattle took shelter.

“All that cow shit in the bush. Somebody might as well have taken 500 bucks from me and threw it in the bush.”

One of the advantages of using mainly legumes in his grazing system comes from the free nitrogen that he gets when he puts an old pasture back into crop.

“When I take it out, I’ve got 200 to 400 pounds of free nitrogen waiting to be harvested. Boy, is it exciting when you start seeding crops into that old alfalfa land,” he said.

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