Managing sandy soil and brush have been part and parcel of Rob and Charlene Graham’s beef operation located in the Holland area near Spruce Woods Provincial Park in south-central Manitoba, since they started raising cattle in 1979. Today they run 275 cows, mainly Hereford-Charolais crosses with Angus added in recent years.
They have been rotational grazing in one form or another since before the term was defined, using pastures in the lower valley areas along the Assiniboine River in the spring and fall and moving the herd out of the riparian area to the hills for the summer. They now have seven pastures of native grass in a twice-over grazing system. Graham is a 25-year member and longtime secretary-treasurer of the Victoria Grazing Association Co-operative, a 2,600-acre parcel of nearby Crown land divided into four pastures, which the members manage on their own in a twice-over grazing system.
The cows winter on a quarter of land approximately five miles from the Grahams’ main yard from November through to the third week in March when they make the trek home to the calving field. Calving starts April 1 and about three weeks later, he begins moving groups of pairs to a stockpiled pasture of crested wheat and stored feed a mile down the road. Then it’s on to summer pastures three miles away sometime during the last part of May.
The wintering quarter is an old yardsite with rows of shelterbelt plantings bordering a smorgasbord of feed awaiting the cows’ arrival. After eating their way through the stockpiled hay, regrowth of barley harvested earlier in the summer for greenfeed, barley swaths and corn, he will fill in with about 30 days of bale grazing to carry them through to March 20.
“I’ve been doing swath grazing for six years and it all works like it should — the cows love it and they do well on it — but I never get very big swaths,” he says. “I feel that I’m losing about a third of my crop by seeding it in June, compared with the barley planted on the moisture in May for greenfeed.”
This past summer brought lots of welcome rainfall their way and produced a phenomenal regrowth on the greenfeed acres. The feed was of excellent quality being nitrate free with 28 per cent protein, 67 per cent total digestible nutrients, and a relative feed value of 151. Cereal regrowth is generally quite poor under normal moisture conditions on the sandy land, Graham explains. He often gives them access to some of the barley swaths at the same time, which also mitigates potential nitrate problems. It’s just a matter of moving the electric fence to give them choices, he adds.
Corn — which he swore off of back in the 1980s when he tried to grow it for grain — is proving its worth for winter grazing. Acting on a suggestion from farm production adviser Shawn Cabak to take advantage of the nutrients on land previously bale grazed, he gave it a try in 2009, liked the results and sowed it again last year. It seems to get off to a good start with the warmth of the light soil and, with only 40 pounds per acre of additional nitrogen provided, it produced 7.6 tons of dry matter per acre, with 10.5 per cent protein and 58 per cent total digestible nutrients, which will provide 388 grazing days per acre per 1,300-pound cow this winter. Adding grazing corn into the winter feed program has significantly reduced the number of bale-feeding days from about three months to one month during the winter feeding period.
Brush encroachment, especially poplar and hazel, can take a big bite out of the pastures over time. Graham has used a combination of intensive grazing, herbicides, burning and crushing with a roller-chopper to manage bush areas. He finds that knocking them back gives the native grasses a chance to take hold and the land seems to stay as prairie longer than it might in a Parkland area.
In 1999 he built the roller-chopper unit from a 12-foot wide drum and attached six-inch square blades. Filled with water, it weighs about 20,000 pounds and pulled by a Cat it can tackle stands with poplar trees as tall as 25 feet. Partly filled with water, it can be pulled with a tractor for smaller brush control jobs.
The idea behind the rolling method was to limit the fire hazard by knocking down the brush to achieve a controlled, low, cool burn. Standing brush is difficult to burn safely because it requires a hot wildfire to kill it, Graham explains.
Control of poplar stands is best done in June to minimize the suckering that is a problem with fall control. You’ll get a flush of grass growth the cows can’t resist and may have to fence the cows out of the area to get it burned off. Normally, he waits three or four years for the rolled bush to dry down and suckers to grow back through the scrub before burning it. One burn will then destroy the rolled brush and the new suckers.
He and others who rented the roller-chopper brought a lot of brush under control until it took a back seat to survival in the face of trade issues affecting the beef industry since 2003. Six years later, Graham returned to start over on some of the areas that hadn’t received the followup burn and found that the second pass with the roller-chopper was enough to destroy the weakened and half-rotted trees without burning. Proper grazing management has just about taken care of the poplar problem for good in those areas.
The roller-chopper method isn’t like clear cutting, he explains. They work around mature oak groves and spruce stands. Moving it across the grassy areas isn’t a problem — the blade edges just leave half-inch notches in the ground without ripping up the sod. Most recently, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has used it for work in the Yellow Quill area in Manitoba.
He controls standing hazel scrub in November, after the leaves have dropped and the cows have grazed through the area to clean it up, but before the snow is on the ground. This way, he achieves a cool burn about two to three feet high in the scrub without burning the grazed open grasslands.
April, when there is still snow in the brush, is a good time to burn open areas — sedge meadows, for example to freshen them up for the cows, or patches of leafy spurge so the plants will be young and the cows will eat it.
“Once you understand fire and build up your courage to use it, burning is a valuable tool for brush control,” he says. Of course there are precautions to be taken. They never burn during the summer because there are a lot of tall spruce stands in the area. The river and creek are natural fireguards and through the years he has established grassed fireguards about 100 to 150 feet wide along fencelines through the forested areas. He always lets the local fire chief and his neighbours know in advance of burning and, because of the proximity to the provincial forest, he must obtain a burning permit. That hasn’t been a problem due to his experience with using fire as a brush management tool.
Beetles control leafy spurge
The control of leafy spurge is another ongoing project in some of his river valley pastures and the grazing association pastures. In 1999, some of the grazing association members began working with the weed district management on a biocontrol program that involved travelling to Minot County south of the border to collect the beetles that feed on leafy spurge. It was quite the process of netting the beetles, putting them on ice and quickly returning home where help had been arranged to properly release them into their new surroundings. The association released about 7,000 beetles (a coffee cup full) on 60 sites per year in each of the four years of the program by which time the district manager felt the goal had been accomplished.
“It was fairly cost effective because the beetles are still out there working for nothing,” says Graham. He figures the spurge population has been reduced by about 70 per cent. Though the yellow flowers are still quite noticeable at first glance, when you take a closer look the patches aren’t nearly as dense as they had been and there is a lot more grass growing through.
Bordering on forest and river areas, the Grahams’ beef operation supports the wildlife population as well. It’s not that they don’t appreciate wildlife, but the worry wears you down with big game feasting on your forages, wild turkeys pecking away at your swaths and wolves feeding on your calves.
This year after sure signs of wolf activity — missing tails and cows bunched together and heads up from being hunted — Graham pulled his cattle out of the grazing association pasture earlier than usual to find that nine out of 75 calves were missing and others had sustained ugly injuries. As of January, some of the cows they had to keep at home to heal were still apt to charge at them in the corrals.
Aside from the direct losses due to deaths and injuries, the stress of being hunted affects cow and calf performance. Coupled with having to wean and sell them earlier than usual, they just didn’t weigh up like they should. Moving into the winter pastures sooner than planned also has implications for the winter feeding program.
Not all wolves bother cattle and brush control to open up areas is one method of discouraging them over time, Graham says. However, the provincial government has stepped up to help with the problematic situation by employing a trapper to work part time in the area. The program is getting some good results and the local cattlemen’s group — the Victoria-Norfolk Cattlemen’s Association — has sponsored the trapper to attend a wolf control seminar.
The cattlemen’s group, for which he serves as secretary- treasurer, was formed some 20 years ago to organize information meetings. They have also purchased shared equipment, such as a bale scale, cattle scale and calf table. Membership has followed the same downward trend as the number of beef producers in the area and their main activity in recent years has been hosting a Manitoba Beef Week seminar organized by Manitoba Agriculture.
Though the region isn’t a big cattle area to start with, Graham says they have always felt that raising cattle is the best fit for their land. Their longtime commitment to caring for their cattle and the land was recognized at the Manitoba Grazing School when the couple received a 2010 Grazier of the Year award.