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Making The Most Of Alternative Pastures

The electric fencing Scott Honey uses to keep his cows at home isn’t just for his conventional pastures.

He uses a high-tensile, twin-wire system around cash crop ground as well. There are opportunities for alternative pasture crops following the wheat harvest and putting cows on corn stalks just makes good sense, the Ontario beef producer says.

“Our longest grazing season was 270 days one year. We fed cattle to the end of January almost, without any supplemental feed.”

Corn stalks carry Honey into the winter most years. And one year 36-year-old Honey and his father, Don, went as far as to bale stalks on a sunny November day using a round baler following a discbine.

It turned cold soon afterwards so there was no problem with heating. Honey figures they managed to pick up about 60 per cent of the material and feels he would use the strategy again depending on hay availability.

“The cows, believe it or not, would leave good hay to go to those stalks. My dad, he couldn’t believe it.”

When grazing stalks, it is important to consider how much grain may have been left on the ground from the harvest, Honey notes. One year, when there was a lodging problem, he lost two cows to grain overload.

These days he likes to take the precaution of using temporary fencing when grazing stalks so that the cows can only access so much grain at a time. It’s surprising how quickly they’ll find it field corners where the corn was trampled by the combine and in other places.

Red clover after wheat is also grazed at the Honey farm. It’s under-seeded with fertilizer or spread using a four-wheeler and spinner. Honey is not sure why, but he’s had good and poor stands with both methods.

Sowing turnips after wheat is one of the more unusual strategies.

In 2006, Honey drilled about seven pounds per acre and the turnip roots didn’t get much larger than small apples. In 2007, the seed rate was dropped to about four pounds. This resulted in larger turnips but dry conditions didn’t favour the crop.

Honey plans to plant turnips again for grazing, at a rate of close to two pounds per acre. That might be accomplished by mixing the tiny turnip seed with mini-MAP (mono ammonium phosphate) fertilizer or a horticultural grit.

Even with less than optimum stands, Honey has been pleased with his turnip results. Given a choice between corn stalks and turnips, Honey has learned his cattle will clean up most of the turnips — tops and roots — before moving on to the stalks.

“In the first year for the turnips, I figure we were feeding the cows for 75 cents a day so it was still better than feeding hay.”

Planting oats after wheat has also worked for Honey and he’s hoping to try an oat/pea mix in the future.

While the alternatives allow Honey to keep his cattle grazing through the fall and into the winter, just as much attention is paid to the conventional pastures.

Back in 2000 when Honey started his shift to intensive rotational grazing, 20 acres were seeded to a mix of alfalfa, orchard grass and timothy. Another 30 was added the following year. Some hay ground was also converted to pasture and Honey has been working to improve some long-term pastureland.

Today, Honey has about 150 acres of conventional pasture split between three 100-acre farms. The paddocks, anywhere from five to 13 acres in size, are all interconnected and surrounded with two-wire fencing.

Well water is pumped through 7,500 feet of line. A 100-gallon tank moves with the cattle.

Rotational grazing is the key making the most of the pastureland.

Last year, Honey had a group of 80 mature cows with calves, 12 bred heifers and 22 yearlings which were

together for 70 days — at which point the yearlings were moved on.

The paddocks are further divided using temporary fences. Honey says he moves fencing anywhere from twice a day to every second or third day depending on the situation and how much time is available.

“Every time I move a fence, I figure I can get another day out of that pasture,” he says.

The rotational grazing has helped improve the pastures. Honey also switches to hay if he feels the pastures need a rest during dry periods in July, August and even September.

When a rain does arrive, they’ll green up that much quicker, he says.

Honey started with alfalfa in the mix when establishing new pastures but has found it tends to thin out after a few years. In response, he’s been using other species with the idea of maintaining long-term pastures rather than going through the expense working them up and starting from scratch every few years.

With rotational grazing and careful management, he’s seen a diversification in the species on the old pastureland which was once dominated by grasses. Today, a number of legumes, including trefoil, are making a comeback.

“I do like a lot of legumes like clover; all sorts of clover… I frost seed red clover every two or three years.”

Honey has also noticed that orchard grass seems to do well in their area but says it needs to be managed right. The trick is to get the cattle to graze the first flush before the species heads out before the end of May. That way, a second flush provides good grazing later in the year.

Another important aspect of the Honey operation is hay and straw production. Upwards of 30,000 small bales are being exported to Florida horse farms and other U. S. destinations annually and Honey hopes to increase production to as much as 40,000 bales.

Having the cattle is a good fit when you’re selling hay, Honey says. If quality is poor because of adverse weather conditions, the hay can always be marketed through the cattle.

“My cows got to eat some very ordinary stuff this past year that otherwise wouldn’t have had much value.”

The cattle are the main focus for Honey but the 36-year-old works closely with his parents Don and Lorraine in what he describes as a “yours, mine and ours” type of arrangement. The family also grows 2,000 acres of corn, wheat soybeans and hay and does custom work, planting and harvesting, on 1,500 acres.

Honey says he’s also worked closely with the pasture specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to build his management skills.

One of the most important lessons was the realization that pasture management requires a flexible approach, Honey says. Unlike a cash crop situation, there’s not a recipe that will provide for a good chance of success.

Honey sees cattle and pasture as being well suited to the climate, soil and rolling topography where his family farms — although cash cropping has also worked.

Honey uses Charolais bulls on Angus-Simmental and Charolais-crossed cows. The cows used to be calved in the winter but are now calved in May and June to better utilize the various grazing opportunities later in the year and reduce labour costs.

The Honey family has been farming in the picturesque hills of north Northumberland County near the east end of Rice Lake near Warkworth since 1867.

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