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Bunching Saves a Bundle

Management is the key

Bunch grazing crop residues has cut Greg and Paulette Selzler’s winter feed costs by as much as $200 per cow and flip-flopped their strategy for building soil fibre and fertility. Instead of growing forages in rotation to give soil a boost for annual crop production, they now use the annual cropping years and bunch grazing to build soil for the forage years in their integrated beef and grain operation near Mayerthorpe, Alta.

They work a five-year rotation of alfalfa-orchard-brome forage into their annual crop rotation, but the cows don’t graze the hay land, summer or winter, Selzler says. They feel bale grazing is a viable way to build soil and improve yield, especially for farms not set up for cropping, however, they need to maintain the highest quality and tonnage possible to supply their long-established horse-hay market.

Nor do they swath graze cereal crops. He and his parents tried swath grazing on and off for 25 years, but it seemed there were always weather-related problems with the timing of sowing and feeding the crop. If mould from rain and melting snow didn’t set in, they’d be iced down or buried under heavy snow. Lots of years they’d end up baling the swaths, mouse droppings and all, in the spring just to get them off the field before seeding.

As land values and the expense of sowing annual crops for swath grazing went up, so too did the risk. “I just felt a lot more comfortable taking the grain out first,” Selzler says. “That way I’m not out anything if I lose the feed under snow or ice because it’s just straw and chaff that would have been chopped and spread behind the combine anyway and I can limit feed the grain as a supplement if needed.”

Slim margins on both sides of the operation sent him in search of an efficient and cost-effective way to make use of crop residues in his winter feeding program. He didn’t have to look far because his uncle, Jim Hole of Calgary, had pioneered the concept of bunch grazing residues and had often tried to convince the family of its merits. It’s an oversized pitchfork-like attachment that fits onto the rear axle of the combine to collect straw and chaff on the fly. The counterbalance mechanism lets the pile drop once 50 to 70 pounds of residue collect on the tongs, leaving it in piles two or three feet high.

Selzler says the design might seem simple at first glance, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. He built his own and based on that experience, recommends doing yourself a favour and buying The Whole Buncher from the people at A.J. Manufacturing (www.ajmanufacturing.ca) who know how to build and use it. They’ll have you up and running in no time, whereas, harvest could be half over by the time you get a home-built model working properly.

Jim Sutton of A.J. Manufacturing says the buncher concept was further developed and patented as The Whole Buncher out of respect to Jim Hole, and his partner, Allen Jones, who has been using one in his beef and grain operation since 2002. The buncher with mounting brackets and hardware sells for $4,500 f.o.b. Okotoks, Alta. Installation information is provided with support just a phone call or email away.

The only problem Selzler has run up against is when he drives over a bunched pile while combining. The straw accumulates behind the bar of the buncher so the counterbalance system that triggers the drop can’t do its job and straw starts backing up into the combine walkers.

In his six years of experience feeding bunches, the savings on winter feed costs have been in line with ARECA’s (Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta) data reported in the publication, Year-Round Grazing 365 Days. It shows an average savings of approximately $200 per cow a year compared to the feed and yardage costs associated with the traditional method of dry-lot feeding hay and straw.

“In other words, I’m making $200 a year more from each cow,” Selzler says, adding that even though the dollar figures have gone up since publication, the savings difference has remained fairly constant.The reported cost per day per cow for feeding bunched crop residue in the field was 72 cents or less, compared to $1.75 for dry-lot feeding, 90 cents for swath grazing, $1 for grazing stockpiled perennial forage, and $1.35 for bale grazing.

These averages include yardage (non-feed costs), but don’t begin to touch on the bonus that comes with in-field feeding — a 35 per cent reduction in fertilizer expense for the following crop because of the efficient soil nutrient cycling system.The soil-building potential is where bunch grazing really shines. “It’s the fastest, cheapest, most cost-efficient and best system we’ve seen for building soil,” Selzler says.

Cows take in the residues and process them through the digestive system into plant-available forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and minerals that will show up in soil tests the next spring, so the return is immediate. Chopping and working in residues gives returns but in the longer term because soil nitrogen is used up in the process of breaking down the residues. Removing straw from the field will cost in the long run because you’ll need to replace those nutrients.

Alberta Agriculture’s fact sheet Estimating the Value of Crop Residues gives general guidelines on how far crop residues will carry the cows. On average in the black soil zone, barley and oat crops yield about 45 pounds of straw per bushel of grain, assuming 80 per cent recovery with two to four inches of stubble. Chaff yields are five to 10 pounds per bushel of grain. Wheat, canola and pea crops yield about 60 pounds of straw and 15 to 25 pounds of chaff per bushel of grain.

In years with average rainfall, Selzler estimates a one-to-one ratio of cereal grain (bushels) to straw/chaff (pounds), but also takes into consideration whether the straw is longer or shorter than normal, bushel weight of the grain and dockage. Some years, some fields could yield lots of bushels with below-average straw yield, and vice versa.

An example estimates a chaff yield of 600 pounds per acre with 20 per cent wastage and daily estimated intake of 30 pounds per head per day for a 30-day period works out to about two acres of crop residue per cow per month. [30 lbs./day x 30 days/600 lbs. residue x 80% (20% roughage) = 1.9 acres per cow.]

He controls access with temporary electric fencing to achieve even manure distribution across the field and to prevent the cows from picking the best out of the piles and using the rest for bedding. Snow does a good job of that, too, because once a cow opens a pile, others will follow in to clean it up before moving on.

One pass with the heavy harrows is all that’s needed to spread any remaining residue before direct seeding in the spring. A pre-seeding burn-off with glyphosate and an in-crop pre-harvest pass with glyphosate to hit perennial weeds like quack grass and dandelion take care of weed issues.

The success of a bunch-grazing system depends somewhat on cow type and the residue, however, adjustments can be made to accommodate those differences.When it comes right down to it, the system is only as good as the manager, Selzler says. It will pay if you are willing to learn and really want to do it for the extra money, not just because you happen to have cattle and crops and it sounds like a reasonable, easy way to feed cows.

In fact, bunch grazing requires a lot more management than feeding cows the conventional way because you are limit feeding by virtue of the high-fibre, low-energy feedstuff itself. A cow will eat as much straw and chaff as she can, but the high fibre content limits how much of it she is physically capable of eating, he explains. If what she takes in isn’t meeting her energy requirements, body condition will drop fast or you’ll end up with impaction problems.

Selzler’s top recommendation is to get the numbers by feed testing the bunches and your hay, and using a beef nutritionist to help put together a plan because the proper balance of macro- and micronutrients.

“You’ve got to feed them to gain weight and you’ve got to really watch the cows to tell right away if they start to lose weight and when something’s not right before disaster happens,” he stresses.Piled manure pats are one good sign that they need more energy and protein to process the fibre. He uses mega-calories as the measure to account for the energy value of all feed ingredients, including protein.

“Alfalfa really is king as far as protein source for beef. There’s just something in it that works with straw. If required, use a custom mineral blend with Rumensin,” he suggests.

He supplements with hay, grain or pellets every few days in cold weather and more regularly as the cows enter their third trimester. Hay is fed at eight to 10 pounds per cow per day using a DewEze bale bed to roll bales out over top of where the bunches were dropped along the swath rows.

“Don’t expect cows to do well on bunch piles and your regular supplement when it’s 20 or 30 below,” he cautions. His strategy is to feed them their full requirement during cold spells and let them return to the bunches when the weather improves.

He wouldn’t recommend bunch grazing for heifers, older and thinner cows. It’s easier just to feed them their requirements in a separate system from the start rather than having the worry of the possibility of dealing with problems in the dead of winter.

“Cows properly trained will take to this system quite easily. Even if they aren’t high-capacity type, you can adjust for that and still save a pile of cash and improve your soil at the same time,” he says.

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