Rancher finds success feeding cattle on mixed-grass prairie

Bertholet’s combination of grass management and genetics has resulted in bull calves that are weaned in fall at nearly 1,000 pounds.  Photo: Daniel Winters

Twice-over grazing system designed by Critical Wildlife Habitat Program 
combined with top genetics produces fall calves just shy of 1,000 pounds

GerryBertholetMikeDenbow_DW.jpgTo many, native pastures are just a place to keep the cows during the summer.

But with a little management and good genetics, Gerry Bertholet’s calves are packing on the pounds from mixed-grass prairie that would put many tame pastures to shame.

Since Bertholet started working with Manitoba’s Critical Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP) using a twice-over grazing system on a half section, pasture productivity has improved steadily.

In the meantime, he’s developed genetics to take full advantage of it, with a target of calves that wean at 70 per cent of their dam’s bodyweight.

Bertholet weighs his cattle in spring before they head out on pasture and again in fall when they come off. At a pasture tour last week, CWHP field rep Mike Denbow used eight years’ worth of weight data on Bertholet’s cow-calf pairs to demonstrate the economic benefit from preserving native prairie.

Although the numbers vary with seasonal weather conditions, the trend has been upward and last year’s results were eye popping. There were 50 cow-calf pairs on the half-section pasture from the end of May to mid-October. The calves, all intact bulls, ended up gaining an average of 3.9 pounds per day and came off the grass at nearly 1,000 pounds each.

“They weighed an average of 394 pounds going out and came off averaging 967 pounds,” said Denbow.

Even with those heavy calves on them, the cows gained 206 pounds on average, he noted.

“It doesn’t really make sense. Those cows should be thin, but they are still fat and milking,” said Denbow.

The cows, mainly Angus and Simmental crosses weighing roughly 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, were bred to a variety of different bulls.

“It’s all about having the right grass and the right genetics,” said Bertholet, who combined a tour of his grazing system with an open house event aimed at showing off his latest bull crop.

Some of the gains could be attributed to creep feeding, and the fact that they were all his best, intact bull calves. But Bertholet said he believes the pasture — little bluestem and other native grasses — is playing a major role.

The rancher is a firm believer in hybrid vigour, and often uses Angus-Simmental-cross bulls with similarly bred cows.

Despite his cattle’s stunning gains on mainly grass, he’s not a fan of low-input production systems or grass-finished beef, and believes that barley is the best way to put pounds on calves. With corn growing on both sides of his lane, it’s clear that he’s also a firm believer in the value of silage.

His bulls are easy calvers, he said, with this year’s heaviest calf born by a heifer tipping the scales at just 84 pounds. Also, by calving in a barn during the coldest part of the year, he figures his mortality rates are no higher than for May-June calvers.

Calving on grass has gained in popularity in recent years, but Bertholet said it’s less efficient at producing pounds of beef. May-June calves are small at birth and aren’t fully able to convert the rich milk produced by their mothers at that time into growth, he said. Spring calving means calves go from pasture in fall to a backgrounding lot all winter, and then out onto grass for another summer before heading to a feedlot.

That wastes time and money, he said.

“By the time they’re hanging, they’re 30 months old,” said Bertholet. “By calving January-February, I can finish two calf crops by the time they finish one.”

It wasn’t easy at first, said Curtis Hullick, who was with CWHP when Bertholet adopted his grazing strategy.

“He was definitely hitting the pastures a little too hard,” said Hullick, now with Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation.

“There were fences in place, but the gates were all open and there was no management to the system.”

The grasshoppers were thick, patches of bare ground appeared in the fall, and the pasture was overrun with non-native and invasive species that limited productivity, he added.

CWHP paid to have cross-fencing installed to create four main paddocks connected by an alleyway leading to a central dugout, along with a small paddock of tall fescue that is used in early spring and late fall. Staff also helped Bertholet develop a grazing plan to optimize pasture recovery and improve habitat for endangered species of birds.

Twice-over grazing involves an initial 12-day rotation that skims over the grass in all the paddocks early in the season followed up later by a 25-day rotation that runs into mid-October.

Managing the rotations isn’t “a pain,” said Bertholet. Most times, the cows are waiting at the gate for their next pasture move.

“The cows, they know. They catch on,” he said.

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