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The swath grazing setup

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

Some people have said it is my cheap and lazy way to ranch. I like to think it is just the smarter way to ranch. I like to analyze production practices in order to reduce the labour requirements and lower the costs involved with each one. Whether I am planning a swath grazing or a bale grazing winter-feeding system, it just makes sense to me. I was planning a swath grazing field today and for me it is important to make sure it will be profitable. That includes making sure both the costs and the labour are kept to a minimum. Yes I pay myself!  It is a business. All labour has to be accounted and paid for.

The field I was planning is a quarter section (160 acres in size) and has a water source in the front corner by the road if I need it. It is mostly an open field of barley on level ground. I prefer to do most of the work involved in a swath grazing field when the weather is nice. When it is cold, I would prefer to spend my time indoors playing games with my family.

I have found that if I put in a day of fencing in the fall, it saves me a whole bunch of time and headaches during the winter. If I run three semi-permanent fences down this field parallel to each other, it creates four long, narrow paddocks. By semi-permanent I mean wood posts slightly pounded into the ground with a one-wire high-tensile wire. These would be run perpendicular to the swaths. I plan to strip graze my swaths every couple of days so having these paddocks set up in the fall allows me to move a short little, temporary fence every time instead of moving a long awkward fence that takes a lot of time and effort.

The reason the semi-permanent fences are perpendicular to the swaths is because I want my temporary strip grazing fences parallel to the swath if possible. I do not like to give the cattle a reason to reach under the weak, temporary fence. I would prefer to never have my temporary fence cross a swath. By running my temporary fence in between the swaths parallel to them, the cattle never are tempted to reach under the fence and put pressure on it. During the winter on snow, an electric fence is not nearly as strong as it might be during the summer, but I don’t want the cattle to figure that out or I’m in for a lot of headaches. The semi-permanent fence is stronger and can handle a little more cattle pressure.

The bonus to this type of setup is also that if your cattle do happen to get through your temporary fences, they only get into one paddock instead of the whole field. Having the herd turned into the whole field can cause an awful lot of feed losses due to trampling of the snow. The trampled snow then freezes on the swaths which can prevent access to them later on.

On a quarter section, the width of each of these paddocks would be approximately 660 feet. On level ground it would take about 10 posts to hold this fence in place and would take about 15 minutes to move on foot. Nice and easy! I can carry 10 posts by hand quite easily. When it is -35° out, I appreciate only needing to be outside working for 15 minutes every few days. A half-mile of temporary fence involves a lot more time, labour and probably equipment to carry posts.

I start my swath grazing closest to the water source. That is if I have a water source or if I might need to use it. In my area, most years I am able to rely on snow as a winter water source for my cattle. But it is not uncommon to have some time in November where the water is all frozen up prior to us receiving enough snow. I always like to have a backup plan just in case. I would set up my first two temporary fences on the first paddock closest to the water source. I need two temporary fences to ensure that when I take down the first fence to move it, the second is already in place. I then play “leap frog” down the first paddock with each fence allowing the cattle into a couple of days’ worth of swathes each time. How often I move the fence depends mostly on the distance to travel to the field each time. If it is right close to home, I might move the fence every day or two as I will get better use out of the field by gaining more animal days per acre. If the distance or equipment use is higher, I may move the fence every three or four days in order to lower the costs involved with it therefore sacrificing some of the days/acre (lower the yield harvested). This needs to be worked out on an individual basis depending on the situation.

A gross margin should be calculated to figure out the margin including labour. Once I finish the first paddock, I simply start on the second and continue “leap frogging” down each one.

When set up right, swath grazing can be a very effective way to feed your cattle in the winter. Is it my “cheap and lazy way” or does it make sense to you as well to spend a day fencing in the fall and then only 15 minutes of labour every couple of days feeding your cows all winter? The alternative is to spend a few hours a day out feeding with a tractor. This most likely raises your labour costs, increases your equipment costs, and lowers your profitability.Punch your own numbers, including your real equipment and labour cost and see how your margin compares. I dare you!

About the author

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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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