Wayne Heinrichs doesn t aspire to any one particular beef production philosophy, but pulls together information from many schools of thought to customize a winter- feeding system for his beef operation near Brandon, Man.
His goal as the system evolves is to find the most economical way to winter his herd without sacrificing performance and without spending a lot of time feeding because he holds down a full-time job off the farm as well.
Standing against a backdrop of corn that will be grazed this winter, Heinrichs shared some of his insights with producers during the Manitoba Pasture Tour in early August.
By participating in local WADO (Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization) trials, he found a corn variety that offers the right combination of cob development and leaf retention for his growing conditions. It s important to have kernels because they provide a large part of the energy in the winter grazing ration, but you don t want them to mature and dry down as you would if harvesting the corn for grain, he explains. Ideally, they should be a little on the soft side when the first killing frost hits. At this stage, they are much more digestible than fully ripened kernels and won t roll straight through the cows. By the same token, you don t want the leaves so dry that they blow away on the first windy day after the frost.
He balances the ration with alfalfa and alfalfa-grass bales to boost the calcium and the protein levels. The hay is grown adjacent to the corn and placed alongside the perimeter of the cornfield. Then it s just a matter of setting them into the corn and removing the strings before the snow flies.
The corn provides great protection from the wind for the cows and the hay bales, while the bales become part of the temporary fencing system, holding pigtail posts horizontal to the ground for the electric cross-wires as he moves them down the field during the winter.
Heinrichs uses two cross-wires, leapfrogging them with each move so that the next allotment of corn is already fenced off by the back wire when he rolls up the front wire. Moving the fence does take longer maybe 30 or 40 minutes as the snow gets deeper. To make the job easier in those conditions, he uses the tractor to strike out the line for the new wire.
There s an upside, too, to all of that snow trapped by the standing corn. Protected from the wind, it stays loose on the surface, making it easy for the cows to eat as their water source, and fluffy enough to provide warm, clean bedding.
In designing the system, he starts by estimating corn grain yield and determines how much area he will need for three days of grazing to provide at least 10 pounds and no more than 12 pounds of corn grain (18 pounds of whole corn plants) per head per day. They do eat more grain the first day into a move, and, therefore, less on the third day, however, 10 to 12 pounds per head per day seems to work well to meet their energy needs and yet prevent grain overload problems, Heinrichs explains.
He places the alfalfa bales to supply 10 pounds of dry matter per cow per day within the three-day allotment of corn. The quality of the bales progresses with the stage of gestation so that cows eat through the lower-quality bales earlier in the winter and work their way into the best-quality bales as calving approaches at the end of the corn-grazing period.
Straw completes the ration, but the bales are mainly there as a beacon of sorts to signal that the cows are running short on feed, he says. The winter grazing program is based on three-day moves, however, during cold spells the cows may increase their consumption and need to be moved more often. When they start eating the straw, he knows it s time to move on.
His objective is to maintain the energy level on an even keel so that the cows have adequate body condition to withstand the cold snaps. When the weather takes a turn for the worst, he ups the corn allotment a bit or provides extra hay bales. This works much better than cutting back on energy too much during mild spells, then bumping it up a lot during cold spells.
Bale grazing within the cornfield offers flexibility in that it s simple to make those kinds of adjustments by juggling the corn and hay to provide more or less of either to compensate for weather conditions, meet nutritional requirements, or extend the days on corn at either end of the corn-grazing season.
He estimates the corn and alfalfa ration costs a dollar a day per cow. It costs $200 per acre to sow the corn, which works out to 35 cents for 10 pounds of corn grain. Threshing the corn and feeding it daily by some other method in another type of system would cost about $1.20 for the 10 pounds of corn per head per day.
Taking the corn for silage would present the same scenario, adding cost and time to harvest the silage and feed it back out.
Heinrichs doesn t scrimp on corn inputs, figuring that if he is going to go to the work of sowing a crop and is relying on it for at least three months of winter grazing, it s worth getting the most out of it as possible. The corn seeding expenses include the price of the seed, fertilizer, herbicide and land costs. He keeps a lid on field equipment costs by running older, but reliable equipment and brings in a custom operator to combine a barley crop every few years to fill his bin as a backup grain supply.
The corn and hay are grown in rotation on the same parcel of land with 35 to 50 acres available for corn each year. He takes out some hayland every four to five years, sows corn for grazing on that piece for the next four or five winters, then puts it back into alfalfa or alfalfa-grass hay. During the last year of corn grazing on that parcel, he takes out another hay field to have it ready for corn the following year. This rotation maintains forage production at the highest level possible and meets some of the fertilizer requirements for the corn crop, while the manure left behind from the corn-grazing rotation provides fertility and organic matter to get the forage crop off to a good start.
Generally, he takes a cut of hay then sprays and, or discs it out that fall and works it again in the spring. This method helps to control weeds and open the surface of the soil to capture warmth from the sun in the spring before planting corn. Being a warm-season species, corn gets off to a much better start when it is sown into warm soil, he explains. In the Brandon area, that s usually sometime from the middle to the end of May.
The corn has never let him down. In fact, this year was the closest he has ever come to not getting a crop due to the spring flooding that delayed and prevented seeding much of the land in the area. He was ready and waiting to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to seed on May 29.
Heinrichs counts on corn-and-bale grazing from sometime in late December or early January through to the second or third week in March when the frost starts coming out of the ground. He aims to have the cows in the yard at least a week before the start of calving on April 1 that s the only aspect that s not flexible, he adds. The yard location offers a reliable water source and provides the highest and driest ground for calving.
Six weeks later, around the middle of May, the pairs are back out in the fields on stockpiled grass, which is a mix of mainly meadow brome and orchard grass. He sets out a few hay bales, mainly as an indicator as to whether they are getting enough to eat. Oftentimes, the bales are still there when the cows move on to summer pastures in early June. He finds that the cows really go for the green grass growing in the bottom of the stockpiled forage and the calves seem to explode in growth with the increase in milk production, clean environment and protection from the elements in the tall stockpiled grass.
Not only does the stockpiled forage benefit the cattle, but it gives the summer pastures time to get off to a good start. He might bring the cows back to the stockpiling pasture once during the summer rotation to skim the top growth, which promotes stooling, then it s left to be ready for the calf crop the following year.
As summer grazing draws to an end, it s on to swath grazing barley and, or millet. He generally sows the cereals during the first week or so of July and cuts them in late August or early September, depending on the growing season.
Heinrichs has been trying some alternative forage varieties, such as an orchardgrass-hybrid brome blend, and is considering tall fescue for some low-lying areas as he renovates pastures. Seed companies now offer a wide array of forage varieties and he says it s well worthwhile to take advantage of the expertise of their agronomists and provincial specialists who can offer assistance with selecting forages that will meet your needs in your growing conditions.
His herd currently numbers 160 cows and 30 bred heifers of Angus, Red Angus and Simmental breeding. He uses black Simmental bulls in combination with an artificial insemination (AI) program, which helps to reduce the number of bulls he has to carry and is a convenient way to introduce new bloodlines.
This year s group of bred heifers is a special lot from his top 30 cows AI d with female-sexed semen from a proven Angus bull to produce 30 heifers to build up his herd with quality females that are adapted to his management system.
Typically, he sells about two-thirds of the steers off the cows in late fall and backgrounds the later-born calves as well as the heifers through to March. Until the bottom fell out of the beef market, there was fair local demand for crossbred heifers from his herd. Now that the market for bred heifers is coming back, he plans to retain a few more heifers to sell into that market in the coming years.