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A taste of drought

Techniques to extend the grazing season pay off for this grazier

Techniques to extend the grazing season pay off for this grazier

It’s the driest Randy Tkachyk can recall in his 20 years of farming the family’s 105-year-old farm near Sundown, Man. Situated near the borders of Ontario and the U.S. along the western edge of the Lake of the Woods ecoregion, the Sundown area typically receives about 20 inches of rain during the growing season. This year, there was a grand total of four.

Tkachyk, who was one of Manitoba’s 2011 graziers of the year, says his rotational grazing system has been the most helpful strategy in weathering the dry spell, and in mid-September he expected to have pasture until the end of the month.

He has been using practices such as rotational grazing, sowing mixes of perennial forages with varying growth habits, and annual forage crops to extend the start and end of his grazing season since he stopped grain farming in 1997 to concentrate on expanding his Angus-Simmental cow-calf operation. He started rotational grazing and a custom grazing business in 2001 and took another big step by implementing winter bale grazing six years ago.

“When I look at grass and compare it to mechanical feeding, the cost per day is cheaper on grass and with bale grazing in the field,” Tkachyk says. Figuring that cows were given four legs to get to the feed and spread their own manure, his overriding objective is to reduce costs and improve profitability by keeping machinery use to a minimum.

It so happens that the 45 days of grazing gained from the same land base since implementing rotational grazing translated into some drought protection this year.

In recent years with ample moisture, he has been getting upwards of 168 days of pasture grazing for his own 140 pairs and replacement heifers and custom grazing an additional 170 pairs and 100 feeders. In spite of this year’s scanty precipitation, his pastures will provide approximately 120 days of grazing for his own herd, though the custom grazing enterprise had to be limited to the 170 pairs and shortened by about six weeks.

He has noticed, however, that the older pastures haven’t weathered the dry conditions as well as the younger stands.

“In the past with the moisture we would normally get, the native grasses come through and help to extend the grazing season, but now with the first dry year, the older pastures and hayfields aren’t producing as well compared to the younger fields. Now I see that I need to break some of these older pastures and introduce new plants that can reach down to the water to improve production and extend the grazing season,” Tkachyk says.

His normal practice for renewing a pasture is to use it for bale grazing the winter before breaking to improve organic matter and fertility. This eliminates the need for commercial fertilizer to grow the next crop, but it does take a year to allow the residue to decompose and prepare the seedbed before reseeding. He generally flips the organic matter with a mouldboard plow and then runs a discer and cultivator over it a few times. An application of glyphosate does help reduce the number of passes needed to prepare the seedbed, he adds.

He usually goes back in with an annual forage crop, such as annual ryegrass or grazing corn, for a couple of years before putting it back into permanent pasture. His standard mix includes orchardgrass, tall fescue, meadow bromegrass white clover, alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil.

Tkachyk says he really likes the quality and quantity of annual ryegrass pasture, which gives him three or four grazes in the year of planting, but he has moved away from corn in recent years because of the production cost and risk. If you get a good crop the economics pencil out, but if not, the production cost is high, he explains. It has been cheaper to buy in hay if needed than to grow corn for late grazing, but that could all change if the dry weather conditions persist.

All of the pastures are conveniently located in a 1,000-acre parcel of owned and rented land contiguous to the yard where the cattle have access to waterers during the winter. A shallow pipeline carries water to holding tanks strategically located to serve the paddocks without controlled access to natural water sources for the summer grazing season.

The setup also makes it possible to maintain one central handling facility for routine processing, loading and unloading, though he does have a few permanent chutes with headgates in the pastures so that temporary corrals can be set up with portable windbreak fences as needed to tend to animals without having to walk them all of the way back to the yard.

Bale grazing, which begins around November 15, requires approximately 25 acres and he changes the location from winter to winter to hit areas that need a boost in organic matter, but the cows are free to roam across a full quarter section or more.

Near the end of April as some of the reed grasses start growing in the low areas, he opens the gates to all 65 paddocks and puts out hay as needed. This free-for-all graze-off lets the cows wipe the slate clean to start the season’s grazing rotation with fresh forage.

As calving draws near in May, he begins closing off paddocks so that by early June, the herd is concentrated in one paddock. The summer rotation then begins in the paddocks that have been closed off the longest, depending on the regrowth. Generally, the younger stands are ready to graze sooner than the older stands.

Between his own pairs, replacement heifers and the custom cattle, there could be up to seven breeding and feeding groups to manage on pasture and each is moved to new grass every three to five days. After pregnancy checking the heifers and through the winter, he runs his herd as one group.

Weaning was always around the middle of December until last year when he had doubts about feed quality and weaned in October. This year, he plans to leave the calves on the cows until into the new year, which is when he traditionally sells the steer calves through a local auction market.

Fenceline weaning has worked very well. After a day together in a fresh paddock, the cows are sorted into an adjacent paddock separated from the calves by a two-strand electric fence. A couple of days later, the cows are moved a bit farther away and the calves are moved in the opposite direction. Weaning is effectively accomplished with very little bawling and no apparent change in the calves’ eating pattern.

All of the heifer calves are retained. After a tight 45-day breeding period to select for fertility, the open heifers go into a finishing program for a local grass-fed beef program, www.manitobabeef.com. Tkachyk started the business in 2004 and has since partnered with another southeastern Manitoba grass-fed beef producer, Jim Lintott, to supply families and restaurant customers with home-raised beef, pork and chicken.

Tkachyk’s breeding program has a grass-fed focus as well. He carries out a timed artificial insemination (AI) program on second and third calvers using semen from bulls with genetics for high performance on forage diets.

“With AI, I can use bulls worth $50,000 to $100,000 because the semen is affordable, and retain the heifers and some of the bulls into my own breeding herd,” he explains. “I’ve been very pleased with the performance results and the positive economics and have leased bulls to producers who want genetics for grass finishing.”

Tkachyk participates in the Verified Beef Production program because it gains customer confidence, but he goes well beyond those requirements in keeping records for his own management purposes.

One of the handiest tools is a notebook divided into sections for each paddock where he records grazing dates, stocking rates and pasture conditions from year to year. “It’s used a lot to look back to see how we were doing a year ago, two years ago, what’s different, what we did then or could do now. This year, no different management could have extended grazing,” Tkachyk says.

He also weighs the calves after weaning as well as a representative sampling of cows and some of the outliers to get a handle on cow performance for making culling decisions.

All of the information is transferred to a spreadsheet for management purposes, such as calculating productivity of the current year and determining carrying capacity and rotations for the upcoming season. Next year could be a whole new ball game because he had to run the pastures harder than ever this summer and there’s no telling how long the dry spell will last, he adds.

Tkachyk also runs an economic analysis on each enterprise. Since he knows his annual costs and the cows have to pay for the land, he is in effect custom grazing his own cattle. He foresees doing more of that in the future as he expands his own herd and gradually eliminates custom grazing for other people.

“I’ll expand slowly, maybe not by the full 170 cows, to give me the option of putting some pasture land into annual crops like corn to extend the grazing season,” Tkachyk says. “As far as a goal, I’m not sure, a lot depends on moisture and the availability of feed for the winter and I’ll have to look at the economics in the long term.” C

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