Extending fall and winter grazing

Crop residues are probably the most under­utilized source of winter grazing, says extension specialist

Extending the grazing season for cattle can help reduce production costs and there are various ways to increase forage production/utilization to ensure adequate fall grazing that can often be extended into winter.

Lorne Klein, range management extension specialist, Ministry of Agriculture in Weyburn, Sask., says there are four sources of forage. “These are native prairie, seeded perennials (alfalfa, grass, sainfoin, etc.), annuals for grazing (oats, barley, spring and winter cereals, corn, cocktail cover crop mixtures, etc.) and annual crop residues.”

Fall and winter grazing is more common today than 50 years ago. “Compared to when I was a kid, many things have changed. Four inventions changed all the rules. One was electric fence. In earlier years it was usually in permanent locations; no one used portable fences. Second was portable windbreaks. Now we can put cattle virtually anywhere and give them a windbreak. Third is snow as a water source. Years ago some people relied on snow, but today more people are realizing it can be done. Fourth is summer calving. As ranchers get older or cattle herds get bigger they may be forced into this because early calving is so labour intensive. Those four things allow stockmen to graze more effectively in fall/winter. You can winter livestock nearly anywhere, if you get adequate snow for a water source,” Klein says. If you don’t get snow you need a back-up plan for water.

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Annual forages

“There is a long list of annual forages today. Some annuals are being reinvented and there are also some new varieties. Some cool-season cereals and many warm-season crops are now utilized by cattle for grazing at different times of year,” says Klein.

Grazeable annuals include fall rye that can be stockpiled for winter. “You can seed it in spring or summer and let it green up in the fall, and graze in winter. Italian ryegrass seeded in spring will green up again nicely in the fall if you get rain. Ryegrasses and corn are usually the crops you graze standing,” he says.

With corn, many people grow it all summer and leave it standing for winter grazing. “Depending on maturity of the kernels when it freezes and stops growing, there can be some risk of grain overload when grazing standing corn. The risk can be high, depending on how many acres you give cattle at once. If you give them 10 days at a time and the cobs were quite mature — and the animals go through and eat the cobs first before they start on the stalks — they may suffer grain overload, causing death.” It’s best to strip graze corn if possible, allowing cattle only a few days’ at a time, so they have to eat stalks before they leave that strip and can’t just go through the whole field eating cobs.

“The most common fall/winter grazing in this area has been swath grazing with annual cereals. It might be oats, barley, millet, etc. Some of the cocktail cover crops like sugar beets, collards, turnips, plantain, etc., can be grazed standing. There are many options now, but a person might need to check some of those for nitrates. In certain conditions some might be risky for high nitrate levels,” says Klein.

“Some of the cover crops get so green again in the fall that you need to graze them carefully, and strip graze like you would alfalfa in the summer, to avoid overeating and problems. It takes good management to make this work,” he says.

Most of the other annuals are generally used for swath grazing. Those windrows are also best strip grazed rather than giving cattle access to the whole field. If you give them too much at once they eat some of each windrow and waste more than if you limit them to a certain amount of feed at one time.

“It also depends on which month you plan to graze it, and the amount of snow you typically get, and whether soil is frozen or dry when you graze — or muddy,” says Klein. If it gets muddy you may need to pull cattle out of that field for a while and have a backup plan for feeding them during that time. You always need a backup plan for fall and winter grazing, in case you have unusual weather or the windrows or stockpiled pastures snow under.

“If you are swath grazing in October and ground is dry, you can give cattle a large area at a time. But if you plan to swath graze in January and snow is more than a foot deep before you begin, there’s risk for drifting snow. If it drifts over the windrow, the cattle may be able to dig it out the first time, but if snow drifts in over it the next day, it becomes harder and you’re done. If they’ve never been on the field, the depth of snow is almost irrelevant (it’s easier for them to push through it) unless it’s two feet deep or more.” Undisturbed snow is easier to dig through.

“I’ve seen swath grazing in fields so covered that you can’t tell there’s a windrow there. If you turn experienced cows out there, however, they’ll root down and find the windrows even if the snow is two feet deep. But don’t give them more than about four days at a time because snow is always drifting. Even on a day you don’t think it’s drifting, it will be — unless it’s really packed. I’ve driven out to a new spot on my pasture to feed hay, and on the way back my tractor tracks are filled in, or starting to fill in, even on days I didn’t think the snow was drifting,” he says.

Lorne Klein took this picture of a field that had not been bale grazed the year before.
photo: File

This part of the field had been bale grazed before.
photo: File

It helps to have experienced cows, for swath grazing in snow. If it’s cattle that haven’t done this before, put a few experienced individuals with them, to show them where the windrows are. “The best scenario is experienced cows and experienced managers. Sometimes the manager needs as much training as the cattle do. Putting a herd that’s never done this before into tough conditions doesn’t work.” They don’t realize, there’s feed out there under the snow and will wait around for you to feed them. By the time they get it figured out they lose too much body condition.

Cattle learn from experience and from following the example of herd members. Calves learn from their mothers. Heifers grazing with their mothers through winter or part of the winter before weaning learn what they need to know. “They grow up in the system and it’s much easier for them,” says Klein.

Utilizing crop residues

Crop residues are probably the most under­utilized source of winter grazing. “These include everything from cornstalks and chaff piles or straw-bunch piles to straw rows. If you can make crop residue work, with supplemental feeding, this can be a low-cost way to winter cattle. It depends which crop it is, whether lentils or wheat straw, sunflowers, etc. You may not have to supplement, because some of these have high nutrient levels. It also depends on how cold it gets in the winter, and your time of calving. There are many variables,” he explains.

“For producers who can make crop residue work, it’s potentially the lowest-cost way to winter cattle. You already have the crop, the combine has bunched it, so you don’t need to make another trip over the field to put it in bunches or windrows for the cattle to find in the snow,” he says.

The perfect marriage would be someone with a cow herd, next to a grain farmer willing to let the rancher graze crop residue. “We almost never see this, however, unless there is a good relationship between the guy with 300 cows and the neighbour with 5,000 acres of crops right beside him. Both sides can benefit,” says Klein.

“Usually the only time it gets done is when guys with a lot of cattle also farm a lot of grainland. This provides access to crop residue, which is the cheapest winter feed — if you can make it work with supplemental feeding. If you can bunch the crop residue and have the land fenced for cattle, with windbreaks available if there’s no natural shelter, and have a water source for when you don’t have snow, it works great — if all those pieces of the puzzle can come together.” The cattle feed themselves.

Crop residue may or may not need supplementations, depending on temperatures, condition of the cattle, time of year, and when you are asking the cows to calve. If they are not calving until late spring or early summer, this is an ideal situation, with multiple options. “Whether you put crop residue in rows behind the combine, or bunch it (to have a pile the cows can get to even if snow is deep) will depend on what month(s) you anticipate grazing. If it’s late in the winter you want it in bunches but if it’s early in the fall you can leave it in rows,” he says.

“Timing has to be right. If you have cattle on your neighbour’s crop residue, and the soil is not frozen and you get two inches of rain, this can be a problem. The farmer sees cows out there punching holes in the ground and wants them off. So you need plan B for when it rains and the soil is not frozen, and have a way to get them off, to graze or be fed somewhere else. But as long as the soil is frozen, cattle won’t hurt it. They simply speed up the cycling of nutrients, which is good for soil health and fertility,” says Klein.

“Whether you collect chaff only, or the chaff and straw together, and which crop it is, will make a difference in feed quality. There is nothing more palatable than flax chaff, and cattle do well on it. If you get a few seeds along with it, with some oil content, there will be high energy and protein levels. There are many different crop residues and ways to collect them,” he says.

Stockpiled perennial forages

“Any time you stockpile perennials, whether seeded or native, you must realize you are giving up quality, to graze them when they are mature. It would have been higher quality in summer when it was green and growing. If you are grazing native range in late fall or in winter, it is important to meter it out with strip grazing, to limit cattle to one portion at a time. Some people say three days at a time, others say seven days; you have to figure out what works for your own situation,” says Klein.

“Cool-season grasses green up again in the fall if there is rain, and will be very good quality and high in protein. A beef cow can carry protein for five days (that’s the upper limit) to keep utilizing in the rumen (to feed the microbes that help digest coarser roughages) and doesn’t need high-quality protein every day. If cattle are receiving a protein supplement it can be fed every three to five days; you don’t need to feed it every day. Twice a week works nicely. That’s what you are doing when you give them several days of pasture at a time. They eat the best quality in that strip during the first day or two and then the next few days are eating drier, lower-quality portions of the plants,” he explains.

“If you stockpile perennials (such as native range) for late-season grazing, meter it out. If you don’t meter it out you need to realize that for about the first three weeks they will have good feed, and then for the next weeks or months it will be declining in quality and that’s when you might need to supplement,” he says.

“With seeded pastures like an alfalfa-grass mix, or sainfoin or cicer milkvetch, the legume adds some quality (more protein) to the seeded grass,” he says.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the past two decades looking at the high cost of cutting and baling, but it’s also expensive to leave forage standing for the cows to harvest because you lose quality. And unless you meter it out for them to graze a couple days at a time, there will be significant trampling loss. If you have a good stand of seeded grass that produces two or more big bales per acre, it may be as beneficial to cut it for hay. If you are getting that kind of yield, it may be better to lock it up at optimum quality, baling it to feed in the winter. There may be less waste and loss of quality,” says Klein.

“If you have land with low yield, you can certainly graze it in winter, but if it is good soil that can produce 3,000 pounds per acre, it may be more cost effective to hay it. In the past decade or so, the price of land has gone up a lot. You need to maximize production per acre. I’ve been at my job with the Ministry of Agriculture for 25 years, and the first decade everything was all about having a longer grazing season (to minimize feeding hay). Land was $30,000 per quarter section, but today it is five times that, and sometimes a lot more,” he says.

To think in terms of stockpiling grass today, and not grazing it during summer to leave it for winter grazing is not as feasible now. “To get half the cow days per acre, and poorer quality feed just doesn’t work anymore, unless it’s native pasture in terrain you can’t hay.” Some land gives you no other option than to graze it, but with land where you can put up a decent crop it often makes more sense to lock in the quality to feed later.

“There are many variables in this decision, however. It depends on how far away from home it is and how far you have to haul the bales. Is it easy to get the bales home, or is there no road? Every time we make a statement about what works best or is more profitable, someone will have a scenario where it doesn’t work at all.”

Similarly, some people insist that it’s best to move electric wire every three days to rotate through a pasture, but although that works in many situations it will not work for other producers. “If you have wildlife ripping your fence down, or terrain and vegetation that make it impossible to run an electric fence every three days, it won’t work,” says Klein.

Stockpiling native or tame grass may work for some people but not everyone. Whether it greens up again in the fall also depends on whether you have fall rain. “Green growth in the fall boosts quality, but if all you need is volume (so you are supplementing with cake or some other protein source), stockpiled pasture can be part of the whole package.” You might have some pastures where stockpiling is their best use, and it may change from year to year. One fall you might have enough green regrowth that you don’t need to supplement for quite a while, and another fall you may need to supplement all the way through. You can’t make a plan that fits every year.

“There’s a new term, adaptive grazing, and I was never sure exactly what it meant. Then I realized that over the years I’ve been doing this, without even knowing I was doing it. Grazing management has to be flexible. Every year I am looking at the pastures and deciding which one to use next, and figuring out my strategy. How long am I going to hold them on this paddock? What’s still ahead of them? This year I had some fields I should have been haying, but I didn’t have time. So I held animals on those fields and doing the exact opposite of what I usually say should be done. I had to turn 100 head onto 40-acre fields for about a month. They got the whole 40 acres on fields that would easily put up 3,000-4,000 pounds of hay per acre,” says Klein. They had high-quality feed for the first part and then had to clean up the rest after they’ve selectively grazed and trampled.

“I bought screenings, and as the grass gets tramped down and not very good quality I can supplement with screenings, just to make them use it up. I should be haying it, but I can’t.” If you can leave the animals in a pasture after they’ve creamed it, and make them eat more of it with some supplement, you get more use from that pasture.

“I was able to buy the screenings at low price. A person has to look at various options. If this is adaptive grazing, then I am doing it. Many ranchers are doing this; their plans change all the time,” he explains. There’s no perfect strategy. With formal research, people only answer one question at a time. Once you get that one answer, you can incorporate that into your system. You have to do the research so you can get one answer, then after you get 20 answers you can start to put it all together, to apply adaptive grazing management.

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