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Year-round grazing systems

cattle grazing on a pasture

I have referred to a Year-Round Grazing System quite often in my articles but never actually defined it. That’s because the definition is different for everyone. We all live in different environments and have different advantages and disadvantages. What works for one farm might not always work for another. The most important part of year-round grazing is to make sure it is profitable.

The acts of grazing or feeding are production practices. What you need to determine is the profitability of each production practice on your farm. That’s where a Gross Margin Analysis comes into play. You can have a production practice that looks the same from the outside but, if done wrong, can be unprofitable. You need to run some numbers to make sure you have a positive margin on each profit centre.

Aiming for a provincial average is not such a good plan when the average farmer is losing money. Learn how to do a Gross Margin Analysis. It was the biggest breakthrough my business ever had.

So what are some of these production practices (PP) that I speak of? Let’s quickly look at some of the possible practices that might make up a Year-Round Grazing System (YRGS).

The biggest and most important PP is Intensive Rotational Grazing of your summer pastures. Yes, the summer is the most important part, even though it is not as sexy as some of the winter practices. Winter grazing is an easy sell. It saves you time and money right away. On the other hand, improving your summer grazing management costs you time and money to implement setting up fences and water systems.

You also have to develop a grazing plan and put it into action all summer long. I will tell you right up front that summer grazing is 80 per cent of my business. It is well worth the time and money spent on it, if it’s done right. I have seen a lot of farms that spend time and money on fencing and now rotationally abuse their land because they do not understand the concepts of graze period, rest period, stock density and animal impact. Understanding why you move animals will tell you when to move them.

As a bonus to good summer management, you now add in another PP: Dormant Season Grazing. This is really just an extension of your summer management that allows you to graze pastures into the late fall and winter. At our place in Busby, Alta., we have eight months of dormant season. That means we only have four months of growing season to supply 12 months of feed. You might see this as a disadvantage but I like to turn things into an advantage whenever I can.

If we manage our grass during the summer and have good-quality “stage two” grasses when a killing frost hits in September, we end up with good-quality standing hay in our pastures. If the snow comes early it covers the grass and helps protect the quality. In a sense, the killing frost is my haybine and the snow is my hay shed. I’ve had green grass under the snow in January with 13 per cent protein — a great ration for almost any type of livestock.

In some environments, dormancy is caused by a dry season which allows the grass to “burn off.” This grass is very low quality and needs supplementation. So is our cold weather really a disadvantage?

I also like to save my lowland grasses for the winter if I can. Most of these water-loving plants are not very nutritious in summer due to their high water content. Save them. They dry out in the winter and are much easier to get at on the frozen ground: another dormant season grazing benefit. The latest I have ever grazed dormant season pastures is the middle of February. An extra five months of pasture can’t hurt the bottom line now can it?

cattle grazing in the snow

If you are a mixed farmer or have grain producers that are willing to work with you, residue grazing is a great way to reduce feed costs in your YRGS. This PP is simply utilizing the chaff and straw that comes out the back of a combine. You just turn off the spreader on the combine and leave the residue in a swath or add on a chaff buncher and leave the residue in small piles all across the field. I believe strongly that every grain field should use livestock on their land to help recycle the nutrients back into the land. (Refer to “The cow combine” article, May 2011.) With residue grazing it is important to ration off 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. A mineral package and some supplements are quite often required to complete the ration but supplementation is much cheaper than full feeding. Especially with the chaff bunches, you will be able to graze through quite a bit of snow. Two to three feet of snow is not impossible to graze through.

Swath grazing is another PP that is just another step up from Residue Grazing. This is where a row crop is grazed by the animals. It may be a salvaged crop that is not worth combining or a crop planted specifically to graze. The type of crop can vary from barley, oats or corn to beets or peas, but whatever the crop, you will still need to feed test it, and possibly make up any shortfalls in the diet. One thing I have learned is that a monoculture crop is not the best thing for our animals. Nutrient imbalances can cause issues. Always feed test. Poly culture crops are much better for swath grazing (and for our environment).

Again, we need to ration off the swaths in order to get the most out of them and to keep a balanced diet. We have grazed right through the winter on swath grazing in the past.

Is bale grazing really grazing? Some would argue this point with me but I think bale grazing is a great way to lower traditional feeding costs in environments with lots of snow or harsh climates. It is the act of importing harvested feed to a pasture and grazing it out on the land. We are bringing in feed but instead of feeding it, we are grazing it. If done right, this can lower your winter labour and equipment cost substantially. Picture a pasture with a few months’ worth of hay bales spread across it in rows.

To ration off this feed, we move an electric fence every few days to provide 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. Try not to handle the bales more than once.

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.

Your Year-Round Grazing System will be different than mine. These are a few of the Production Practices that I have used and have found to work. But remember, it is all about the margin! Make sure your farm is making a profit.

Can you graze 365 days of the year?

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., 780-307-6500, email, or find them on Facebook.

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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