I USED TO BALE HAY…NOW MY COWS GRAZE THROUGH THE WINTER

My first paying job as a young teenager was lining small round bales in the hayfield for pickup. This was at a time when the Allis Chalmers small round baler was the main hay-harvesting method in our area in Southern Ontario. A mechanical bale conveyor pulled parallel to the hayrack or wagon, moved the bales up a chain drive to the person on the wagon, who then piled them on the wagon. At the barn, we would unload the bales onto a 30-foot bale elevator which moved them up into the hay mow. There several men would strategically place the bales in the mow. The process was very labour intensive especially in humid, hot days. There had to be a better way!

Someone in the area adapted a stone boat so that a person could stand on the front of it and grab the bales as they came out of the baler and placed them on edge to create a three, two, one pyramid pile. A lever was tripped and the bales were left in the field for later pickup with a front-end loader. The advantage of placing the bales on edge was to shed the rain. If the bales remained flat, the rain would soak in and cause damage.

With the development of the pyramid stack system the small square baler became the system of choice for most farmers and the Allis Chalmers small round baler quickly became a memory.

Vermeer developed the first large round baler in the late 1960s followed by the McKee chopped hay-harvesting system, the Hesston and John Deere haystack systems followed by the soft and hard core round balers. All sort of bale pickup equipment was developed and in recent times, Hesston created the huge square baler that is primarily used in the alfalfa hay industry.

The development of all the different hay-harvesting equipment was great for the machinery dealers but as time passed, most of these systems became relics of the past and were parked in the junkyard behind the barn.

Feeding cows stored hay cost money and farmers have considerable capital tied up in hay-harvesting and -handling equipment.

Over the years research at Melfort and Lacombe Agriculture Canada research centres has shown that grazing is still the cheapest way to raise cattle. The extensions of the grazing season has been the primary goal and today’s producers can extend their grazing season through the use of fertilizer to increase productivity on perennial pastures or by grazing annual cereal, Italian ryegrass, warm-season annuals or Brassica crops. The full details of the results of grazing all of these different crops over the past 100 years have been summarized in a new review paper for Canadian Journal of Animal Science and posted on

www.Foragebeef.ca.

There has been considerable uptake of winter swath grazing or bale grazing across Canada. Farmers are able to reduce their winter feeding costs by 40 to 50 per cent compared to feeding stored feed.

For the past five years at Lacombe we have been grazing standing alfalfa meadow brome regrowth through the snow. Our fields were fertilized with liquid hog manure early each spring. A hay crop was harvested in early July and the fields were left to regrow for the remainder of the growing season. In early November, pregnant cows were allocated to either the standing meadow brome alfalfa or oat or barley swath for winter grazing. All cows had access to fortified salt and trace minerals. An electric fence used to control the amount of grazing area was moved about every three days.

Since we had already harvested the first cut of hay our available forage regrowth for winter grazing was about one-third the amount of the annual cereal crop available for grazing. Thus the amount of grazing days per acre for the meadow brome alfalfa fields were less and averaged 65 animal grazing days per acre versus 200 animal grazing days per acre for the swath grazing fields. Our cows grazed for an average of 80 days on the meadow brome alfalfa fields and 109 days on the oat or barley swaths.

Over the year our fields at Lacombe basically remained snow free until mid-to late December. Cows were able to graze the meadow brome alfalfa fields with virtually no wastage. When the snow finally came, the cows were able to successfully graze through 18 to 20 inches of snow. However, sometimes the cows didn’t graze the entire area and the amount of waste increased. One year in a January thaw and subsequent freezing rain followed by a big snowstorm, grazing conditions deteriorated. Cows were able to successfully graze but they concentrated their efforts in selected areas and left large areas ungrazed. If we had higher stocking rates this would not have been a problem. The more animals and hoof action the better. The cows basically pulverized the snow and ice into fine particles and the cows were able to successfully graze.

The big question remaining was whether we swath or not swath the meadow brome alfalfa field for winter grazing. We did not swath as it was an added cost but more significant was the concern that the trampling of the meadow brome alfalfa swath through the winter grazing period could result in winterkill of the pasture, especially the alfalfa. On the other hand it would reduce the amount of waste as the cows would have easier access to the forage compared to the standing crop. Over the five years of the study we saw no evidence of alfalfa winterkill when grazed as a standing crop in the late fall and winter months.

At the start of the winter grazing, the alfalfa plants were mainly stems with a few remaining leaves. Cows would first graze the tops of the alfalfa plants and then graze the meadow brome. Throughout the winter the meadow brome grass remained green and of high quality.

The swath-grazed oat or barley provided significantly more winter grazing days than did the meadow brome alfalfa but we did not have the annual cost of growing and swathing the cereal crop. Grazing meadow brome during the winter would provide an alternative when swath grazing isn’t available. However I would recommend that producers graze the meadow brome alfalfa earlier in the winter before the heavy snow to reduce wastage. The rest of the winter cows could bale graze or swath graze annual cereals when snow conditions reduce grazing on the perennial pastures.

In any winter grazing situation it is extremely important to check the cow’s condition every two to three days. Portable windbreaks need to be provided if bush is not available for wind protection. In addition, an accessible water source must be available. Dry cows can use snow as a water source but what happens if it doesn’t snow? Trucking water to a large herd of cows is a real pain. It’s also very costly.

Winter grazing research is continuing at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centres at Lacombe, Brandon and Swift Current and at the Western Beef Development Centre. Provincial Forage Councils and producers’ associations have a unique opportunity to partner with the research centres to develop various adaptation trials in the different regions to further fine tune and develop these low-cost winter feeding systems.

Remember… grazing is still the cheapest method of feeding cattle. It sure beats hauling feed. It is also extremely important to have a reserve of baled hay or other stored feed well protected from rain to see you through the next drought.

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

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

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