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I Cannot Produce Beef Any Cheaper Than I Do Right Now

Farmers keep telling Dr. Vern Baron, crop physiologist at Lacombe Research Centre in Alberta that they cannot produce beef any cheaper than they do right now. With the economic downturn in the beef industry for the past few years many producers still ponder this question. What are they going to do? Is there a future on the family beef farm in Western Canada?

Researchers at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research centres at Lacombe, Lethbridge, Swift Current, Indian Head, Brandon and the Western Beef Development Centre at Lannigan, Sask. are all trying to find ways to improve the economic returns to the beef farmer.

Over the years the research team at Lacombe has looked at extending the grazing season as one of the main ways for beef producers to lower costs. Baron’s favourite saying is, “Grazing may still be the cheapest way to produce beef, but just any-old way won’t be good enough” …and he has the numbers to prove his point.

However, beef producers are still in an economic crunch. “Producers need to examine their operations and calculate exactly where their costs are and how they can fine tune their operations to reduce any unnecessary costs,” adds Baron. Capital costs are very high in farming, for land, facilities and equipment. The only way to reduce the capital cost per calf produced is to increase the herd size, sometimes beyond what the family can handle, or reduce the origins of the cost. He goes on to say, “We have been doing a lot of work on extending the grazing season with winter swath grazing. Whether you graze a second hay cut, corn or swathed late-seeded cereals you effectively reduce both operating and capital costs for the cow-calf enterprise. Not including land costs you can reduce fixed costs so much that the savings in operating cost seem small and both are significant.”

Dale Kaliel, an economist with Alberta Agriculture has seen a big shift to low-cost harvesting systems. “Since the drought years of 2002 and 2003, producers who were forced to use extended grazing techniques, perhaps to salvage crops, became a low-cost producer,” he says. “You really don’t have to be good at it to save money. If you get really good at it maybe you will make money.”

“Forage yield, quality and the local environment are the three major concerns,” Baron adds. “The goal of extending the grazing season is to reduce feeding costs, hauling costs, harvesting costs and manure removal costs. When we look at why producers don’t switch from the more traditional feeding of stored feeds during the winter we find big regional differences and some farmers are just afraid to change.”

The researchers from Lacombe have calculated that the cost per day of swath grazing is about 45-50 per cent less than the traditional way of feeding stored feed. That’s having 22 per cent of the cost tied up in equipment, for feeding stored feed, 18 per cent of the cost in labour and 60 per cent in feed costs. However, when we look at the costs of swath grazing the researchers found that only four per cent was allocated to equipment costs. Reducing capital or equipment cost was the big advantage for extending the grazing season.

The Western Beef Development Centre in Saskatchewan showed that in 2005 yardage charges for a beef cow amounted to $1.15 per feeding day including unpaid labour or 92 cents per feeding day not including unpaid labour. These costs are now five years old and most likely need revisiting. Still, they demonstrate you don’t have to pay the high yardage costs when your cows are out grazing. It’s the yardage costs, or capital, or equipment costs that really makes or breaks the operation.

Today the costs of crop production in swath grazing represents over 70 per cent of the total daily cost of grazing cows for better than average yields. So can we reduce the crop costs of swath grazing? Baron says, “perhaps not, but it may be possible to increase crop yield for a similar cost thus increasing carrying capacity and therefore reducing cost per cow per day.”

Machinery operations are planting, herbicide applications and swathing. Inputs are seed, fertilizer and herbicide.

Seeding date and harvest date are most critical for swath grazing. Seeding date is selected to target swathing in mid-to late September just before the killing frost. Generally, late planting means low yield.

Lorne Klein, regional forage specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, recommends producers “seed annual crops on relatively good-quality soil. You need a relatively high yield to get enough cow days per acre to justify the input costs. Seed the low-producing soils to perennials.” He goes on to say, “statistically June is the wettest month of the year so seed prior to the June rains to increase the probability of a good yield.” Producers used to delay seeding until late June. “We’ve seen too many times a relatively poor yield because the crops are behind the rains and right in time for the heat and drought of July and August,” he says.

Harvest date is critical to swath preservation. It is generally recommended to swath the crop just before the killing frost so that cool weather will help preserve the swath. Green swaths are not necessarily better when swathed early as bacteria and moulds could grow in the swath while a more mature swath might preserve better. At Melfort and Lacombe, they generally aimed to swath just before September 15 as that’s when they usually saw the first killing frost.

Producers choose barley because it matures rapidly and while some varieties accommodate late planting better than others late-planted barley generally has low yield. At Lacombe, Baron has looked at a range of planting dates as it affected a Sept. 1 or Sept. 15 harvest date. He planted oats, barley and triticale every week starting on May 12 to June 24. He then looked at the date when these crops reached the soft dough stage in relation to Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 harvest dates. He found that on all seeding dates barley reached the soft dough stage before oat and triticale, and triticale basically took the longest number of growing days to harvest at the soft dough stage.

Local environment has the greatest effect on the yield of annual crops for swath grazing. Bill May at the Agriculture Canada Indian Head research farm along with Lorne Klein found that in southern Saskatchewan oat and barley needed to be seeded between May 20 and May 25 to take advantage of spring moisture and cool temperatures. However, when seeded this early, the cereals were swathed in early August in the soft dough stage. Swaths left in the field from early August to freeze-up were subject to significant weathering due to rain. It may be possible to take advantage of the higher yields of early-seeded spring cereals swathed in August at the soft dough stage, by grazing those swaths in August and September and utilizing other perennial forage regrowth for late fall and winter grazing.

Dr. Shannon Scott, Dr. Hushton Block and Clayton Robins at the Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Brandon are looking at the potential of grazing their swaths in August and September when perennial pastures are not productive due to the hot summer days and low rainfall. This gave their brome alfalfa fields a chance to rest and regrow for later grazing in the fall.

The whole plant dry-matter yield of standard barley or semi-dwarf barley at Lacombe was highest when seeded in early May and was in the range of 3.8 dry-matter tons per acre. Each week delay in planting after May 10, resulted in a loss of one-quarter ton of barley swath per acre. Each ton loss reduces carrying capacity about 70 cow-day per acre. Each week of planting delay after May 10 increased the daily grazing cost about $0.03 per cow. Oats planted between the last week in May and mid-June produced 4.3 dry-matter tons per acre while triticale seeded between the last week in May and mid-June yielded approximately 4.9 dry-matter tons per acre.

When Baron looked at the cost of digestible dry matter the standard barley generally had the highest cost while triticale had the lowest cost. Triticale also had the highest carrying capacity for winter swath grazing which resulted in the lowest daily swath grazing cost per cow regardless of planting date of around $1.10 per day, which was about $0.19 per cow-day cheaper than barley.

Yield is still the main criteria for successful swath grazing. During the winter, cows naturally require more feed and sometime in the southern areas of the Prairies there simply isn’t enough dry-matter forage in the swaths and more acres are then required. “It’s the number of days that you keep your cows out grazing in the winter that really saves you money since you will have extra yardage costs when feeding stored feed,” says Baron. “The number of actual grazing days is more important than the number of cows grazing on an acre of land.” This is because capital costs saved are even larger than yardage.

There are some environmental benefi ts to swath grazing over feeding hay at feeding sites or even bale grazing. Compared to barley silage or greenfeed operations diesel fuel and lubricants can be reduced from 16 and 13 l/acre, respectively to 8.5 l/acre for swath grazing. Fossil fuel-related emissions per cow-day could be as low as 0.6 kg CO2 equivalent per cow-day for a high-yielding triticale crop compared to 0.78 and 0.75 kg CO2 per cow-day for barley silage and greenfeed operations. However, Baron also notes that big cow numbers per acre will leave a lot of manure and therefore phosphorus on the soil surface and farmers need to move their swath grazing fields around their farm in order to distribute the phosphorus and not have high buildups. It is especially important to not swath graze fields with a slope or fields near a water course due to run-off of extractable phosphorus.

With all the cows on the swath grazing field there will be a lot of nitrogen left on the soil and this will help reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer required for next year’s crop. In each of the past three years Baron has been able to reduce the amount of fertilizer-N applied as soil-nitrate levels have gradually increased. Looking to the future we are all interested in reducing greenhouse gases and basically producers use less fossil fuels by swath grazing compared to making hay or silage but we do not sequester as much carbon as we would in using a perennial crop for our feed production.”

So why does Baron think that there is an advantage to growing triticale for swath grazing? It basically boils down to the number of growing days it takes triticale to reach the soft dough stage for harvest. Day length and temperature have a big effect on maturity in barley. Planting any of the cereals in late May or in June places them at a point in their development near the longest day, where day length reduces days to maturity even more than the same temperature would if they were planted at the end of April. Barley heading date and the days from heading to soft dough (the filling period) are reduced as planting occurs later. The growth rate that oats need to get to the soft dough stage is not as great as barley since oats basically head later. Triticale simply does not have this same sensitivity to day length. It takes the most growing days to reach the soft dough stage, with its grain-filling period largely unaffected, resulting in more dry-matter yield.

Farmers often question having

Triticale swaths topped barley and oats for volume and cost, and the cows liked it.

grain yield in their swath grazing crops as they are afraid of potential grain overload. The first year that I tried swath grazing at Lacombe the barley had been planted too early and was harvested too late. We basically could have combined the crop. Using electric fences we cordoned off a small portion of the field and baled up the swaths. We provided the cows with free access to some hay or straw in bale feeders and moved the electric fence to provide one day’s swath grazing of the high grain crop. We continued to move the fence one day at a time until the cows got used to the swaths and we had no problems with grain overload. Another year we had high nitrate levels in the swath crop and we limited the amount of swaths available each day and provided free access to hay or straw for the first week or two until the cows got used to the winter grazing. Again we had no problems.

Lorne Klein advised using an electric fence to allocate four to seven days of swaths at a time to train the herd to the electric fence especially the first winter. You need to monitor all your cows every three to four days especially for poor doers and remove them from the swath grazing field. Cows need some form of wind protection such as trees or permanent or portable windbreak fences.

Avoid grazing when the fields are muddy or provide extra grazing area. Big game damage and feeding can make the practice impossible for some producers. You could contact the local conservation officers for possible suggestions.

You could supplement feed to encourage cleanup near the end of each move.

Dry cows can be wintered on snow as their water source, however if you do not have enough snow cows need access to fresh water.

Baron sums up, “Lowering your capital costs or your yardage costs is the most important thing that you can do to improve your economic returns. To do that you need to try and increase your swath grazing yields.”

DuaneMcCartneyisaretiredForageBeef SystemsresearchscientistfromLacombe.

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Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

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