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Winter grazing options

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

Winter grazing options

As I write this, our summer is winding down and the evenings are starting to cool off. It won’t be long now until our killing frost hits us. This happens usually sometime in mid-September for us here in Busby, Alberta. We have had a good summer this year with plenty of moisture and we left extra residue all season. After four years of drought, it is high time to feed the soil a bit extra. We still have a few months of grass ahead of us and this is the time of the year that I can now predict how late we will be grazing. We need to plan our winter grazing strategies.

We will dormant-season graze our pastures well into December or January this year. Some producers save stockpiled grass to graze in the spring but we like to use it up in the fall if possible. With all leased land, we risk losing stockpiled grass if we don’t use it. You never know what can happen over the winter.

If you own the land, by all means, save some grass for the spring. It is a great option for spring calving or even just to get some animals out on grass early. The stockpiled grass plus the new spring growth makes for a great ration for spring grazing.

Every year we also look around to see if there are any grain farmers with some crops to sell. We have developed ourselves as a market for grain farmers. We can buy crop residues, salvaged crops, under-seeded crops or whatever they have available. 2015 was a severe drought so we managed to find 450 acres of pea straw to graze for that winter. We bunched the straw, which made the piles easier to find under the snow.

Last year, most of the hay was rained on a few times so the quality and price of hay was low, which made bale grazing the best option for our winter grazing plan. Every year is different so we need to maintain some flexibility and look for the most economical option. Using the same winter grazing strategy every year is not always the best option because each year the margin on whatever production practices you use can be different. Let’s look a little closer at our winter grazing options.

The most economical winter grazing option is intensive rotational grazing of your summer pastures. Yes, the summer is the most important part. Not only does good grazing management make you a better margin during the growing season, it allows you to reduce fall and winter feeding costs by grazing late into the dormant season. If you’re grazing, you’re not feeding.

If we have managed our grass well during the summer and we have good quality “stage two” grasses when the killing frost hits in September, we end up with good-quality standing hay in our pastures. This can be grazed well into the winter and in most cases, I have had very high-quality feed. This is the advantage that our cold climate gives us.  Our growing season is short but with good management, our grazing season can be extended quite a bit.

I also like to save my lowland grasses for the winter if I can. Most of these riparian area plants are not very nutritious in the summer due to the high water content so I like to save them for winter grazing. They dry out in the winter and are much easier to get at on the frozen ground. You might want to supplement a bit of protein depending on the class of livestock and the feed test. Supplementing on pasture is usually cheaper than full out feeding.

Residue grazing is another great way to reduce your feed costs. This is simply utilizing the chaff and straw that comes out the back of a combine and allowing your livestock to graze it in the field. You just turn off the spreader on the combine and leave the residue in a swath or add a Chaff Buncher and leave the residue in small piles all across the field.

I believe strongly that every grain farmer should be using livestock on their land to help recycle the nutrients back into the land. With residue grazing it is important to ration the feed with an electric fence. This stops them from picking through all of the feed to get the best at the start and ending up with a very low-quality feed at the end of the graze period. I usually use a graze period of one to three days but this will depend on how your margin calculates.

I would also recommend a feed test, a mineral package and some supplement feed be added to the ration. Even if the feed is high enough in protein and energy, I have had issues in the past when only supplying a monoculture ration (just one type of plant). Add a bale or two of hay every day to add some polyculture to the ration. This will help ward off any nutrient imbalances that can occur with a monoculture crop.

If there are enough weeds in the crop, or if you were able to interseed in a cover crop, then the crop becomes a polyculture and the issue is resolved, which is another reason not to worry so much about weeds.

Swath grazing is another tool that I use that is just another step up from residue grazing. This is where a full crop is grazed by the animals. It may be a salvage crop that is damaged, not worth combining or a crop planted specifically to graze. The type of crop can vary, but whatever the crop you still need to feed test it and possibly make up for any shortfalls in the diet.

Again, monocultures are not the best thing for our animals, always feed test and supplement as needed.

I also bale graze quite often. Some would argue that I am not really grazing; however, bale grazing is a great way to lower traditional feeding costs. It is a form of feeding, but done on a pasture. Similar to residue or swath grazing, we ration off the bales with an electric fence. We are bringing in feed but instead of feeding it, we are grazing it. If done right, this can lower our labour and equipment costs substantially for the winter feeding period.

Picture a pasture with a few months’ worth of hay bales spread across in rows. To ration off this feed, we now move an electric fence every few days to allow access to another row of bales. Or maybe we have a few days’ worth of feed in different paddocks and we simply open a gate for another graze period. The key to bale grazing is to lower the labour and equipment costs.

A variation of this could also be silage grazing where the cattle have access to silage that is rationed off with a wire instead of being fed to the cattle. Again the key is to lower the costs. You could ration it from a pile or from bags, whatever works for you. Just make sure that you’re making a profit off of it.

These are just a few of the options that I have used in the past. Your winter grazing system will be different than mine. Remember, it is all about the margin! Run a calculator and see what works for you. Be sure to include your labour and equipment costs and make sure that your winter plans include having a positive margin.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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