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Bale grazing still too chancy

Glenn Cline fears he may be getting a little old-fashioned in his views for not jumping into bale grazing. His success in the cow-calf business says otherwise.

He and his wife, Norma, established Bright Water Lake Ranch near Dundurn, Sask., in 1972, after a job with the nearby community pasture brought him to the area a few years earlier.

Cline, whose family roots have run deep in agriculture in the Moose Jaw area since 1882, says he’s always been keen on cattle. He recalls as a kid watching his dad, uncle and neighbours move cattle to the military pasture east of the city, wishing his parents would allow him time off school to help out.

They consider themselves fortunate to have been able to build a ranch from scratch and earn a living raising beef cattle. “It can be done,” he tells those who ask if it’s possible in this day and age, but it meant foregoing some luxuries and really pulling in the reins on spending during tough times.

Those lean years, though, were oftentimes the trigger for trying new approaches or looking at old ways in a new light. Such is the case with winter feeding systems.

Mornings during their early years would find them hitching the heavy-horse team to a bale wagon he had made to roll out hay in a pasture near the yard for the main herd. The heifers were wintered in corrals even though the reason for rolling out the hay was to make sure all animals had equal access to the feed.

A bale processor was purchased during the dry years of the ’80s when crops of all kinds in the area were salvaged for cattle feed. The team wasn’t retired to the back 40 altogether and they continued feeding with team and wagon for many years because it was something he enjoyed doing.

He now relies on the bale processor to make the best use of their hay resources, lays out enough feed in a large wintering pasture to last three or four days to avoid having to run the tractor every day, and successfully winters the heifers alongside the cows to adapt them to the environment for future years.

Their hay is grown on 160 acres of deeded and 240 acres of leased native grassland that is part of a 3,600-acre flood irrigation project dating back to 1958. Water flows in naturally from the Hanley reservoir to the south and a series of dikes and control structures was built to facilitate drainage. The system handles the water nicely, with 2006 being a memorable exception because they were marooned on the farm for three weeks due to heavy snow cover and a quick spring melt.

The hay land is a gem in the rough considering the light sandy soils and periodic gale-force winds typical of the area. Yields can be phenomenal, he says, as Norma pulls out the record book with carefully written entries showing a yield of 732 bales or approximately 4.5 bales an acre off their 160 acres alone in 2013. Some years the yield has been heartbreaking, the latest being 2010, when it gave them only 78 bales.

From the Alberta Farmer Express: Bale grazing may increase nutrient loading, say researchers

“If we can get it put up in good condition, it’s as good as any other hay, with nine to 12 per cent protein, but the quality is quite variable,” Cline explains. Plant types range from fine-leafed highly palatable grasses nearer the field’s perimeter to coarse-leafed stemmy plants farther in. He considers this a mixed blessing of sorts because the cows go after the best hay and any of the coarse hay not eaten doubles as bedding, which saves the cost of purchasing straw.

Cattle producer inspecting hay by hand

The variable quality in his hay crops is one of the reasons Cline remains cautious about bale grazing.

Variable hay quality is the main reason for his cautious approach to bale grazing even though he knows it’s costing $7 in fuel alone every feeding day to put out hay with the bale processor.

His observations and conversations with producers who are bale grazing leads him to believe that it can work very well with high-quality hay, such as alfalfa-brome, because the cows readily clean up each bale leaving residue and manure spread quite evenly across the field and all animals have access to good hay.

His concerns with native-hay bales in a bale-grazing setup are that the boss cows would get first dibbs at the best hay and partially eaten lower-quality bales would be used for bedding resulting in too much feed waste and heavy residue packs to deal with come spring.

In his pasture feeding system, variable hay quality is managed by grouping bales of like quality in the stack yard and picking some of each to mix off through the bale processor on feeding days, giving all animals equal access to quality hay. One or two passes with the harrows in spring spreads the residue nicely and the pasture is left to recover until fall.

Other reasons for change

Cline says conception rates have improved since he began supplementing with OLS lick tubs that provide additional protein and minerals. According to the label, one inch of product equals a pound of supplement and each cow should consume 82 to 165 grams per day. Measuring the disappearance each week indicates that their cows are consuming roughly 110 to 120 grams per head per day.

Heavy-duty portable windbreak panels with 14-foot wide legs to withstand strong winds have been another worthwhile investment. The four large sheltered areas created by setting the panels perpendicular to each other provide protection from wind from any direction and have been very effective in conserving light bluffs of trees. It doesn’t take many winters for cattle to wear a frozen bluff thin with their rubbing, Cline says, whereas the trees are much more resilient once the branches supple up in spring and recover well from light use for a short time during calving season.

Their calving start date has moved from March 1 to March 18 and he is considering bumping it to the end of March due to the bitter cold start last year when almost all of the cows that calved in the first 10 days had to be cycled through the barn.

Turnout onto their native grass range is usually the first week of May, by which time new shoots are starting to grow fast to get past the ample carryover from the previous season.

A decade ago they settled into a Limousin-Black Angus breeding program. The first Limo bull was purchased in 1979 when the carcass angle caught his attention. They continued breeding their blue-roan Shorthorn-Hereford base cows to Limo bulls, keeping all of their own replacement heifers, which led to an all-red herd. Wanting to get some hybrid vigour back into the program, he started using Charolais bulls. Those buckskin calves really did grow and sell well and keeping replacements gave the herd a decidedly buckskin hue. Weighing about 300 pounds more than the reds, the buckskins were the first to be shipped to greener pastures when drought hit in 2001 and were sold when 2002 turned out drier yet. Seeing the Angus breed put a lot of effort into development and promotion, he started putting Angus bulls on the red Limo-influence cows and breeding the replacement heifers back to Limo bulls.

“I really like this two-way cross and we are proud of the quality of our herd because it has always been a closed herd, except for the bulls,” Cline says.

He’d have to say that participating in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s herd health program is the best thing he’s done. Located a half-hour south of Saskatoon, Cline was among the first cow-calf operations to sign on when Dr. Eugene Janzen started the program some 35 years ago.

A set fee per cow entitles each client to a certain number of visits each year, bull evaluations and preg testing. Generally two or three students accompanied by a professor assist with routine processing spring and fall including vaccinating, castrating, tagging, parasite control and dehorning with a hot iron, which now includes use of an injectable anaesthetic. They’ll also assist with difficult calvings, disease issues and perform post-mortem examinations, which Cline says are fascinating because every part of the animal is examined for learning’s sake.

Many procedures do take more time with two or three people involved, but the program gives future veterinarians great on-farm experience and he has learned just as much from them through the years.

Cline shares his ranching knowledge through the Ag with Kids program at Dundurn school. Recently, he gathered up some of his doctoring supplies to explain that cattle don’t get sick very often, but helping them when they need help is all part of having cattle. He feels it’s a great opportunity for kids to ask questions and asking questions shows they are really interested.

A preconditioning program designed to garner premiums from buyers died out after a dozen years or so, but was a valuable learning experience nonetheless. The veterinary association developed a protocol for preconditioning calves and participating producers were able to obtain a certificate signed by their veterinarian along with special tags to apply before putting the calves through the sale ring. Presorting into semi-load lots to get the numbers required by the big feedlots came on the scene shortly afterward, so it was always questionable as to whether premiums were because of preconditioning or presorting.

“The bottom line is the reason for any change has to make sense for your own operation,” Cline says.

As for bale grazing, he went ahead last fall and set out 60 bales in a paddock next to the winter feeding pasture. As of February, the gate remained closed. He’s not exactly sure why. It could be the severe winter weather holding him back from giving it a test run, or it could be he hasn’t had a reason to open it. What really makes sense for their operation at this point in time is the security of knowing that if he fell ill or the equipment failed some cold winter day, chores would be as simple as letting the cows into the bale-grazing paddock.

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