Making the most of crop residue
Harvesting grain and putting up feed is one in the same operation for Duane Thompson of Tee Two Land and Cattle near Kelliher, Sask. Crop residues fed in the field have improved soil organic matter and fertility for annual crop production and reduced winter feed costs on the cattle side.
Thompson says the symbiotic relationship between grain and beef farming makes the most efficient use of resources across his land base and helps to self-insure the farm against market volatility in both sectors.
Annual crops include cereals, oilseeds and pulses, while forages for grazing and silage cover approximately half the 7,000-acre land base. The commercial cow herd has grown from 600 head to 1,000 in recent years as he and his wife, Paula, worked toward taking over the operation from his parents. A 2,000-head feedlot for backgrounding the calves gives him the option of selling any time the markets are right from weaning in fall, to off grass in late summer, to finishing them on the farm.
Through the years, he has tried several strategies for extending grazing beyond the summer months and has settled on a system that makes efficient use of crop residues — a plentiful, readily available, and low-cost resource at Tee Two. The less you have to handle chaff and straw, the more valuable it becomes.
His fields and those he rents from neighbours are left as is after combining for stubble grazing, giving the herd access to forage in areas not suitable for cropping. This averages about 25 acres on each quarter in his area of east-central Saskatchewan dotted with potholes, sloughs and aspen parkland bush.
This is the main winter feed supply for the mature cows in top body condition (score of 3.0 or better) at weaning, which could be any time from September to November, depending on pasture conditions, Thompson explains. He primes the herd for winter stubble grazing by maintaining high-power summer pastures containing lots of legumes so that the cows and calves are nice and fat come fall. This group receives alfalfa-based silage during cold snaps when the temperature drops below -27 C and every third day if they are still out grazing during their third trimester.
First and second calvers along with older and thinner cows are sorted into a second herd that grazes stubble and straw-chaff piles on fields closer to home so they can be supplemented with silage every second day.
Straw and chaff are blown together into a chaff wagon trailed behind the combine while harvesting barley, oat and pea fields. One combine has a chaff drop box attached to the rear axle. It is counterbalanced to automatically tip when full leaving windrows of small chaff piles that are later gathered with a stacker and placed for winter grazing. Largely that’s on the knolls and side hills, which are the best place for them given that stacks left in the hollows can quickly disappear under heavy snow drifts.
Only chaff is collected from canola and wheat and both are fed to backgrounding cattle. Canola chaff has good feed value, but low palatability, so it works best in mixed rations, whereas wheat chaff isn’t the greatest feed, but animals like it, so it’s used to start cattle unfamiliar with silage.
If Thompson could give only one word of advice from what he has learned about grazing crop residues, it would have to include several points: test residues so you know their feed values, sort cows into groups based on their nutritional needs, supplement accordingly, and have a backup plan if Mother Nature plays a trump card.
“When the snow gets an ice crust, the grazing is finished,” he says. Fall 2010 started off that way and the mature-cow group never did get out to graze the stubble fields that winter. Most years, they’ll be out until February and some years as late as April. Calving starts at the end of April on pastures with stockpiled grass.
“Be sure to train cattle to an electric fence before freeze-up because frozen ground insulates them from the full effect,” he adds. “If you can’t control the animals it’s nearly impossible to manage this system.”
To handle the temporary fencing, he built a wire roller driven by a five-horsepower motor that can string a half-mile of high-tensile wire in five minutes.
The in-field chaff-straw stacks are fed with a hot wire giving the herd access to three or four days’ worth of stacks at a time. All of the leased stubble fields have single-strand temporary fences, although he says he’s willing to pay extra if the owner allows him to put up a permanent fence.
Consistency of the manure tells him whether the cows are maintaining an even plane of nutrition. Moving the mature herd to a new quarter section every three to five days seems to work best. Part of the reason he can do this quite easily is because all of the quarters are connected.
Portioning out the feed prevents a boom-to-bust scenario where the cattle do well when rummaging through and picking the best feed, then lose weight when cleaning up the remainder unless they get some supplement.
“Not all cows are built to work for a living,” cautions Thompson. He removes the two to three per cent that fall behind using a field sorting corral of about 60 portable panels. This saves supplementing the entire herd to meet the needs of a few high-maintenance cows.
Thompson supplements with alfalfa-based silage because of its high protein content and digestibility to keep the rumens functioning efficiently so they make the best use of the roughage. He prefers silage over bales because there’s less worry about weather downgrading the quality or delaying the harvest during the best part of summer when he should be spending time with his family.
“Silage isn’t ‘just’ cow feed. I put labour, fuel and iron into it so I want it to be the best. That is about 16 per cent protein,” he explains. He likes a legume-grass mix with a high percentage of alfalfa and some clovers, which persist better than alfalfa in wetter areas. Meadow brome and creeping red fescue are the go-to grasses.
He manages for top quality by harvesting new forage stands for the first couple years, then turning them over to the summer grazing rotation for another three to five years before returning the land to the annual crop rotation. The stand is sprayed out and any regrowth grazed to weaken the plants before the oats or barley are drilled into the sod the following spring.
While this mixed farming formula offers a lot of flexibility year to year, any major changes have to be well planned in advance. Altering one enterprise can have a significant impact on all the others.
It’s also a fairly intense 365-day-a-year venture that wouldn’t be possible without extra hands. He and Paula, who kept up with her nursing career through the years, consider themselves fortunate to have had very good longtime employees and the role his parents played bringing them into the business.
Their goal has been to create a business that any or all of their four children could join and that time is nearing with three of them already in post-secondary programs. The kids are no strangers to the workload on a mixed farm, he says, and at this point it’s looking like three of them are interested in joining the family farm.