Drought is a fact of life for beef producers. And if it’s not too dry, there’s a good chance it’s wet enough to complicate haying operations.
Producers can’t control the weather, but they can mitigate risks to water sources, pasture and feed. Extension specialists with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry share ideas on protecting those resources whether it’s bone-dry, sopping wet or somewhere in between.
Long-term winter plans
There is no one-size-fits-all water system for beef operations.
“If you’ve got a thousand producers, you’ve got a thousand different situations,” says Joe Harrington, an agricultural water specialist with Alberta Agriculture in Lethbridge.
Harrington says there is plenty of innovation in the industry and good products that provide better value than ever to producers. But before looking at specific technologies, he recommends producers create a long-term water management plan.
“It’s really just taking a critical look at what they have for sources, what they need, what kind of problems they may have and what situation they’re in,” says Harrington. Producers then need to look at economics and physical access to water sources, he adds.
“In my mind, that’s critical to maximizing the benefits so you’re not caught in the next drought without water.”
Usually producers will have more grass than water. But this year in Harrington’s area, a good run-off followed by a dry spring created more water than grass. Understanding those dynamics is critical to maximizing benefits, he says.
Harrington says producers should also consider how excess water will affect grazing and forage, along with water access. Producers who want to capture water also need to understand water rights in their province.
For example, most provinces require approvals or licences to draw water from a tributary. Legislation designed to protect wetlands can also come into play. Harrington says it’s important that producers line up water rights approvals to make sure they have access to that water in the future.
Water rights can be “absolutely critical for the business,” he says. “If they have not obtained the proper approval and licences, sometimes they may not have access to that water source when they really need it.”
Harrington also recommends practices such as using an off-source watering system to keep cattle out of a dugout. That will help the dugout last longer and protect water quality, he says.
Protecting winter feed
What do you do if you can’t catch a break from the rain during haying season?
“Don’t try to make dry hay,” Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture at Stettler, writes via email. “If there is a possibility to make either chopped silage or bale silage the time that the forage is exposed to the rain in the swath is greatly reduced.”
If the forage is two to four per cent too high in moisture for baling, an inoculant or preservative can help, Yaremcio adds. “This could allow the baling process to proceed anywhere from half a day to a day earlier than without an inoculant or preservative.”
Moisture movement into the bale decreases quality by feeding microbes. There are several factors that influence moisture and heat retention in the bale, Yaremcio says, including environmental temperature, humidity and bale size.
A more tightly packed bale will shed water better than a less dense bale, he says. Net wrap also helps shed water compared to twine. Yaremcio suggests extending the net wrap onto the flat side of the bale to help reduce moisture migration. John Deere and Tama now make a wrap that is reported to allow more moisture evaporation compared to older wraps, he adds.
Once the hay is up, the next step is to protect what you’ve got. Remember that rotting occurs from the top down and the bottom up. To prevent rotting from the ground, it’s best to locate the feed yard somewhere with a higher elevation and a gentle slope. Place bales in the higher areas so the moisture runs down the slope, away from the bales.
Mowing the area reduces plant growth trapped under the bales. Rake the mowed material and haul it away if needed, Yaremcio adds. Producers can also layer washed rock on the ground to drain moisture from the bale surface. Make sure there’s no sand in the rock, he cautions.
Even with an elevated feed yard that’s been mowed, producers can expect some loss in overwintered bales. Research in Westlock, Alta., found that even with those steps, bales lost 5.7 per cent of their weight over the winter. Other research has found weight losses as high as 15 per cent. Unprotected hay also leaches protein and soluble sugars.
The best way to prevent loss is to store bales under a shed, says Yaremcio. Covering them with tarps or plastic is better than no protection, he adds. Producers can also wrap bales individually or in a tube to get them out of the weather. Cows may waste up to eight per cent more from unprotected bales compared to those stored under a shed or tarp, he says.
Stacking matters, too. While a pyramid stack may provide recreational opportunities for farm kids, it leaves hay open to damage. Rain and melting snow moves between the bales, both on the outside and inside of the pyramid. Yaremcio says wherever bales touch, spoilage occurs.
Mushroom-stacking is a better option. One bale is placed flat-side to the ground, and the other on top. It causes less damage than the pyramid, but moisture still moves from the top to the bottom. Yaremcio says it’s the more common way to stack bales these days.
“People are starting to pay more attention to how they stack their forage and are trying to minimize losses.”
The second best way to stack hay is to not stack it at all. Instead, place individual bales six to 10 inches apart, round side to the ground. Bales should be in rows oriented with prevailing winds.
“This allows the wind to remove any snow from between the bales so there is less snow to melt (and surface water) in the spring.”
The 2018 feed shortage means producers are looking for any forage they can find, says Yaremcio. There is two-year-old hay available in some areas. Yaremcio suggests reweighing these bales at the time of purchase. Producers should also keep in mind that if the bales weren’t protected from weather, digestibility of the outer layers can be 10 per cent lower and feed refusal and waste can increase.
Producers can also blend straw or grain into a pregnant cow ration, depending on the quality, Yaremcio says. It’s easier to use lower-quality feeds when the cow is not lactating and her nutrient requirements are a bit lower.
Yaremcio suggests taking a representative sample of the feed, whether it’s hay, greenfeed, straw or grain. Have the sample analyzed and then balance rations to meet animal requirements. Producers can consult with a nutritionist to create a feed program.
Producers can also use a program such as Alberta Agriculture’s CowBytes. CowBytes balances rations, provides feed costs and calculates how much feed is required for the winter. Producers can buy the program or try a trial version online at www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$Department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex12486.
Managing pastures during or after drought
No year in grazing is ever the same because no pasture functions the same year to year, says Grant Lastiwka, Alberta Agriculture forage extension specialist based out of Olds.
Producers who had a dry 2018 need to remember that damage accumulates over time with perennial pastures.
“And with that in mind, what are your remedial actions going to be? Ask yourself that before you start, when you have a chance to make some of these decisions. And have those decisions bear fruition.”
Lastiwka recommends watching animals for dissatisfaction and monitoring the pasture. Keep an eye on both forage quantity and quality. If forage quality is declining, high-protein tubs are an option.
“If you’re using a supplement tub, (make sure) you’re selecting particularly for highest protein,” he says. Many people buy something with 25 per cent protein, but he suggests something in the neighbourhood of 40 per cent.
Decisions will depend on an operation’s particular situation. Producers who run a higher percentage of yearlings have more flexibility in dry years. Calving time and calf size also come into play. Herds with smaller, younger calves may have higher forage requirements, he explains, than 600-weight calves with plenty of milk.
Previous pasture management, climate, pasture biodiversity and soil quality are also factors. A biodiverse forage stand with litter will capture and hold rain. Deeper-rooting grasses can access more nutrients and water in the soil profile. But nitrogen is highly correlated to water-use efficiency, Lastiwka says, and so even shallower-rooted legumes can be resilient. He suggests keeping and reviewing records over time to get an idea of how much water infiltrates the soil when it rains.
Native pastures will be biodiverse unless they’ve been overgrazed. Overgrazing tends to take out species with root depth, Lastiwka explains. Managing previously damaged native pastures well can improve root depth, health and vigour “but you can’t make a Clyde a Thoroughbred. It just doesn’t quite happen.”
Producers should consider the law of the most limiting factor when looking at their forage stands — and often that means nitrogen. Lastiwka suggests using other management practices first, then using fertilizer if needed to set the stage for better development. Banding is always effective, but surface application in the spring will give plants a shot in the arm, too.
Fertilizer isn’t cheap. But it can be more cost-effective when feed prices are high. “So that idea that it doesn’t pay — doesn’t pay when? When paying 10 cents a pound for hay, maybe fertilizer’s a good investment.”
When forage is short, weaning calves early is also an option. But producers need to consider feed requirements for those young calves.
“How do you get enough protein into a little calf? How do you get enough energy into them, knowing that their rumen capacity and erratic eating habits are putting them at risk?”
Little calves need around 16 per cent protein, Lastiwka says. Something like second-cut alfalfa has plenty of protein but risks bloat. But, says Lastiwka, if it’s a sainfoin-alfalfa mix, “you now have your cake and eat it too. You’ve got organic bloat control in with alfalfa.”
Sainfoin is high in condensed tannins, which bind to soluble proteins and cut bloat risk, Lastiwka explains. Producers can use those tannins to create a safety margin in pasture and hay mixes. A high-legume pasture project found that other high-tannin plants include purple and white prairie clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and some native plants, says Lastiwka. Alan Iwaasa, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher, is working on the topic as well, he adds.
Cicer milkvetch is another legume that doesn’t cause bloat, but it doesn’t contain tannins, either. It has cells that don’t break down easily during chewing or digestion, which slows the release of nutrients such as protein and reduces gas.
One risk-management strategy is to reseed a couple of pastures that are on better land. The idea is to create a resilient pasture with multi-functional species in it and with the needs of the land in mind. That pasture can be a buffer, says Lastiwka, and give producers some flexibility during tough times.
Next year might be the year to try a cocktail mix on poor grainland, Lastiwka says. That crop can be grazed or silage if needed.
Whatever strategies producers employ, it’s a good idea to baby perennial pastures after a dry year. When Lastiwka weaned his own calves in late October 2018, he left some grass in the pasture to protect next year’s production. Perennial pastures develop tiller buds in the fall to set themselves up for the next year, he explains, so leaving cattle on continuously grazed pastures into the fall would damage next year’s production.
“The fact is that we need to nurture (pastures) and realize they’re stressed too.”
Alberta producers can reach Joe Harrington, Barry Yaremcio, Grant Lastiwka or other extension specialists toll-free by calling 310-FARM (3276).