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Working with farming neighbours to graze crop residue

Here’s how a cow-calf producer is extending the grazing season by working with local farmers

Bootsman uses a quad to roll and unroll aircraft cable for electric fence.

Fall and winter grazing can help a beef producer reduce winter feed costs, and some cattlemen are finding value in creating co-operative relationships with neighbouring farmers to graze crop residues.

Joey Bootsman has a cow-calf operation near Rapid City, northwest of Brandon, Man., and for several years has made arrangements with farming neighbours to graze some of their fields. His cows calve in April and he backgrounds most of the calves — and sometimes buys additional calves to background.

“We run between 600 and 700 cows, depending on the year, and send a lot of our cows to other places for grazing. Most of them go to private pastures but some go to AMCP (Association of Manitoba Community Pastures),” he says.

He started stubble grazing on farmland five or six years ago, as a way to lower costs of production, and this part of his grazing program has continued to grow.

“Sometimes we also graze Ducks Unlimited land in the summer. This is pothole country; there are many sloughs and waterways in our area. On the average 160 acres, there might only be 125 acres farmed. There’s enough wasteland and sloughs to be worth grazing,” he says.

“We started with some neighbours next to our pastures, so fencing was minimal; we maybe only had to string a mile of electric fence to make it work. Now we’ve evolved to where we’re grazing quite a bit of land farther away. Our cows go north for summer pasture and come home on liners. We recently dropped 250 pairs in a field east of us a ways. They work their way back home across various stubble fields, grazing crop aftermath,” says Bootsman.

It all depends on fall weather. “One year we started with a new farmer because it was so wet that after he dropped some straw for other neighbours no one could get it baled. We went into those places with some of our cattle to clean it up. Now we are growing this kind of arrangement as much as we need,” he says.

Conditions in 2019 were very dry, so they picked up more grazing acres. Even though they had adequate moisture this year and didn’t need as many acres, they wanted to maintain the relationship, so they continued to use those acres.

“We had a nice fall and still had all 700 cows out on pasture in early December — and hadn’t moved them to swath grazing yet,” he says.

They fence areas ranging from a quarter to three quarters at a time. Aircraft cable, rolled on reels, serves as electric fence.

“A local business called 7L Livestock Equipment supplies the steel reels, and we use drills for rolling up the cable. They have several versions including 3,000- and 5,000-foot-length reels. We use the 3,000-foot length because the aircraft cable is heavy. We typically unroll and roll it up using quads. We pound wood posts on the corners to hold it, and put step-in posts in between,” says Bootsman.

Fence posts at the corners of the field anchor the electric fencing. photo: Courtesy Joey Bootsman

This year there were some problems with moose tearing up fences, so they had to check fences every morning. Generally, the system works well, though. After grazing, they pull the posts, as posts are a problem for farming equipment such as sprayers.

“When we are done, you wouldn’t even know we were there.”

This year, they grazed about eight quarters, including their own silage ground and other farmers’ land. Utilization varies, says Bootsman, but this year they were averaging five to seven days per quarter in most fields, with 250 pairs in one block.

“Ideally, the earlier you can get into it, the better quality grazing it is, but due to harvest and working around the farmer’s schedule, we need to be pretty flexible. It works well when we have some land adjacent or around it and can make adjustments on the fly. If we need to go to some of our own land or silage ground in between, we will do that, but if we can keep using the farmer’s pasture, we do,” he says.

Their grazing arrangements don’t interfere with the farm’s grain production, and they’ll keep the cattle off some land if necessary, he says.

“The fewest grazing days we had was on a half-section, but we did minimal fencing because it was already fenced on three sides; we only had to string fence for half a mile. We ran 250 heifers on it for eight days. When you look at the economics of it, this still works.”

Bootsman says the first step is to just ask any farmers in the area who might be willing to allow grazing on crop aftermath or acres that aren’t being farmed.

“The price point is often the challenge. In years past, some people could acquire this kind of temporary grazing for next to nothing. We typically base the price on a per-day cost and subtract the cost of fencing,” says Bootsman.

In his area some people use percentages. He always bases the stubble grazing value at about 70 per cent of what an annual forage might cost to graze.

“If I’m paying $1 per day per pair for grazing, stubble, in my opinion is only worth 70 cents because the quality is lower. Then I work back from there on the fencing. For instance, the half-section where we only have to string half a mile of fence, if we were targeting 70 cents per day per cow, and spend half a day fencing and half a day taking it down, it might net out to be about 60 to 65 cents on that piece,” he explains.

On some pieces of land where they have to fence the whole thing, taking more work and time, it might go down to about 50 cents to the farmer per day per cow. This is land that the farmer isn’t getting any use from at that point in time anyway, so it’s a bonus for the farmer to have someone pay to graze it.

“Typically, the farmers might get $500 to $1,000 per quarter, for letting us graze. If this doesn’t negatively impact what they do, and can make them a little money, most of them are happy to do it. We’ve never had anyone not like it, or not want to continue doing this with us,” Bootsman says.

Occasionally a late harvest might make it unworkable, as the grazing season just isn’t there. That’s why Bootsman bases the rate on per day of actual grazing, rather than a flat rate.

“If it’s really wet, I’d rather move the cattle off, instead of making a mess for the farmer. There’s not enough grazing value to leave them on it too long and make a mess. When we start working with these guys, we have an agreement that we won’t make a mess.”

Ideally, the cattle are helping the land and making it better, rather than hindering future production. Grazing the potholes and rough areas, cattle can help by bringing manure back out into the fields, and there shouldn’t be a negative to it. Being flexible, and willing to adjust, is one way to make the first year or two a success, and forge a good ongoing relationship with that farmer. When he works with farmers, it’s all done with a handshake deal; no written contracts are needed. But communication is key.

“We are very particular when we start out, to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands what this will entail — what the farmer’s goals might be. One guy’s main request is that when we graze it and leave, it should look like we weren’t even there; the cattle won’t have any negative impact. We manage that guy’s stubble different than some other pieces,” Bootsman says.

Sometimes a farmer wants cattle to clean up everything, in preparation for tilling that field again. Utilization varies with the wishes of the farmer.

The main thing is to make it work, economically. Bootsman allows $700 per day of costs for fencing labour (himself and another worker), plus the tractor, post-pounder and quads. When looking at the cost of buying hay for those cattle, it’s still worth paying about 50 cents per day to the farmer to graze 250 cows, he says.

“My sweet spot is 250 pairs, to make it work for me. With 250 pairs on a quarter-section, this is about a week. If a person is only running 50 cows, in order to get the same days on that property you would need to leave them there five weeks, and that might not be the best for the cattle or the land,” he says.

Grazing residue or unfarmed acres can be a great way to stretch feed resources. It has to fit the operation and be beneficial to both the rancher and the farmer, and herd size is part of the equation. A smaller outfit might be able to do the fencing cheaper, or have some other angle that makes it feasible. There are many variables, and every operation is unique in what might work, or won’t. The type and class of cattle also make a difference.

“The land we used with our pairs this fall was pretty good, for grazing quality. We also used some pasture that was mostly slough grass; we went there with bred heifers that were adequately fleshed and didn’t need as high-quality feed as the lactating cows and calves. You wouldn’t want to put young steer calves on pasture where they would not be able to gain the desired number of pounds per day.”

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