Your Reading List

Ryegrass works for winter grazing cows

The only drawback is some extra birth weight on the calves

cows grazing ryegrass in winter

Andy Schuepbach, a registered Hereford breeder in southern Alberta, uses two varieties of ryegrass to provide fall and winter feed for his cattle. The high protein content of these grasses eliminates the need for any other protein source.

“We grow barley for silage, and after it’s seeded we seed 10 pounds of a mixture of Italian ryegrass and annual ryegrass. The Italian ryegrass has phenomenal feed value. We bale a little for our calves but use most of it for winter grazing,” he says.

The Italian ryegrass has fine leaves and is very palatable so young calves do well on it. Calves won’t eat coarse feed, and this grass is very soft. “We calve in February and March, and always struggle with ulcers in the calves. We have a lot of windbreaks and open-face sheds with bars across, halfway back, so the calves can get into the back part. This is where we set up a round bale with panels around it. The calves can eat the bale through the panel bars,” he explains.

“When we start AI with the cows, the calves are two to three months of age, and by that time 100 calves will clean up a big round bale in a week. Since we started feeding them the Italian ryegrass we have nearly eliminated the ulcer problems.” The calves always need something to nibble on, and this feed does not irritate their gut.

“In the old days, when we started using the Italian ryegrass, we cut it every year and baled it, but most of the time I sold it because I didn’t need such high-powered feed for our beef cows. But it was a huge challenge to get the Italian ryegrass dry enough to bale in October or early November. It was nearly impossible,” he says.

“So then we used it for our weaned bull calves for a few years, letting them graze it instead of trying to bale it. That didn’t work very well either. When we weaned in September there was no frost on that grass yet and it was just too green, too powerful. Those calves grew; their growth was phenomenal, but they didn’t put on any weight. The feed was too green, too high in protein, and it just went through them like water.”

For the last six years Andy has been grazing it with the cows instead, in December and January when it’s been frozen and is drier. “It is too good a feed for the cows, but they can harvest it themselves and I don’t have to go out and feed them,” Andy says.

The cows start calving February 1, and the high protein adds a few pounds to birth weight, and an occasional calving problem, but he feels that the advantage of not having to feed hay outweighs the disadvantage of higher birth weights.

He tested the feed value some years back, when they were trying to cut and bale the ryegrass. “We had a 200-acre pivot and only got half of it baled. The other half we couldn’t get dry enough to bale. I decided the cows can graze the rest of it in the swath,” he says. He took samples for analysis on the 10th of January, three months after cutting, as well as the new growth the cows were eating.

cattle in the wintertime
"We bale a little for our calves but use most of it for winter grazing." – Andy Schuepbach, Claresholm, Alta. photo: Supplied

“The regrowth was 13.2 per cent protein and had 193 relative feed value index. The dairy industry wants hay when it hits 150 or higher, so this grass at 193 was nearly straight sugar. The remains of the swath had a relative feed value of only 109 but the protein content of the swath, three months after cutting, was 26.3 per cent. We have never tested anything that high,” he says.

The main cost is the fertilizer. “Depending on how good a stand we have after we take the silage crop off the field (the barley and first growth of ryegrass) we put on something between 150 to 200 pounds of urea 4600 fertilizer per acre, which adds cost. But if you don’t fertilize it to get the regrowth, it doesn’t do very well at all,” explains Andy.

“One of the first years we grew ryegrass and were taking off the silage, my father-in-law started to fertilize behind us. He caught up to us and we had about eight swaths left. He stopped and let us finish and then he fired up again, to put on that last bit of fertilizer. He forgot to turn the PTO on for the spreader so it was mostly all deposited in a line behind the machine. We ended up with a foot-wide line where every plant was burned out. On each side there was a five-foot area where everything was lush and thick. Then the rest of it, that didn’t get any fertilizer, even though it was under irrigation, didn’t grow enough to pay for the seed and the seeding. You can’t get away without fertilizer. But we really like this crop because it gives us an extra five to six weeks of grazing in the fall for the entire cow herd and provides excellent feed,” he says.

The only drawback is the higher birth weights. “If a person were calving in April, several months after being on this kind of feed, it probably wouldn’t make a difference. But for us, starting to calve the first of February (after grazing ryegrass during December and January), it really puts more weight on those calves before they are born.”

For the past three years they’ve grazed the ryegrass until the middle of January, which means the cows that start calving the first of February are at highest risk for larger calves.

Andy has been using Italian ryegrass for about 12 years. “Another Alberta Hereford breeder — east of us, in the Brooks area — that we shared a bull with at that time, had used ryegrass for many years. He told me about it when we started our irrigation. Ranchers in his area had been irrigating for about a generation longer than we have; he was in one of the earliest irrigation districts. He blows the ryegrass seed on after he seeds the barley. Then he just harrows and packs it in. We use an old hoe drill that we rig up so that it knocks down the high spots, and we roll it afterward.”

He feels this crop is well worth what he puts into it. “For us, in our area that is very sandy, it works very well. Many people wonder why we don’t grow corn because it gives more yield for silage, but I would worry about our sandy soil blowing away if we tilled it for corn. The Italian ryegrass has such an extensive root system that it holds the soil. It has a root mass like quack grass. For our area, it works very well,” Andy says.

“The richer, heavier soil you have, the better it does. It really likes manure, and in soils with lots of organic matter it does even better than in our sandy soil.” A person wouldn’t need much fertilizer on ground where cattle have grazed extensively, leaving a lot of manure and litter.

“Some of the ranchers are using Italian ryegrass in areas east of us, a region we call feedlot alley — where people have to be careful to not spread too much manure on their cropland. A lot of guys grow it there because it does so well in those situations. But some of them quit growing it because if you get moist conditions when you are trying to silage, all those green leaves down near the ground raise heck with the swather cutter bar and gum up the knife,” he explains.

“It all depends on what kind of weather you have. If it’s a hot, dry summer it makes just a small thin leaf that you can barely see. But as soon as the barley is taken off and you fertilize and irrigate it, the Italian ryegrass really grows. In our cooler summers we’ve had lately, it makes a wider leaf and has a head start when we take the silage off. Within six to seven weeks after you take off the barley silage, you could probably cut 1.5 tons of hay.

“We are a bit later; by the time we can seed it’s the middle of May or late May. For a while I am busy with the cows doing AI, so we just seed it when we can.”

It still produces plenty of regrowth after the silage harvest, but he finds it best to graze the regrowth than try to make hay.

About the author



Stories from our other publications