I spend a fair amount of time travelling across Saskatchewan and Manitoba and I have heard this statement many times. “You might be able to do that in Alberta but you can’t do that here.” And they are right. If you think you can’t, you won’t, I agree with them every time. They have a mental block. It is sitting on top of their shoulders. Nothing against Saskatchewan and Manitoba either, I get the same comments everywhere I go, even within Alberta. But you can! We developed a “Year Round Grazing Demo” project through the Agriculture Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) a few years ago. It is a great handbook. We picked producers from every part of the province to prove that you can “do that” in your area. By all means, try to get a hold of a copy. For more details go to the web-site
I have found that swath grazing can be a very economical and time-saving solution to the winter-feeding blues. Feeding 300 head of cattle with an hour of work every week makes a lot of sense to me. However, I am going to look at it a little differently.
This article will be about what not to do or maybe what to watch out for. I don’t appreciate articles or books that tell you how easy and worry free a production practice is and then find out about all the mistakes the hard way. My goal is to help you avoid some of the unexpected issues that come up and make life a little easier. I will share with you my learning experiences. (I don’t like to call them mistakes!)
“But we get too much snow.” That’s a pretty common concern for people. To tell you the truth, I have had more trouble swath grazing when there is not enough snow than when there is too much snow. Too much has only stopped me once. Not enough has caused me trouble three or four times.
I admit that if I get more than two feet of snow that gets hard and crusty, some cattle have troubles. When this happens, I start pulling out the “skinnies.”
In deep snow, you get three types of cows swath grazing: the diggers, the skinnies and the opportunists. The diggers, as you can guess, open up the swaths and find the feed. They do fine every year. The skinnies are the cleanup crew. They follow in behind and clean up whatever is left over in the swath. They usually lose condition as they are eating lower-quality feed and less in total. These cows may have to be pulled out and culled. You have to monitor. Check their teeth. If they are missing teeth, they should be culled anyway.
I love the opportunists. They hang around at the front of the swaths with the diggers. As the diggers pull up mouthfuls of feed, the opportunists steal the mouthful. Now in life I would say that this goes against the morals and values that I believe in, but I guess the reality of our society is not much different that this. Have you ever taken advantage of someone else’s hard work?
If you think the cattle are having trouble finding the swaths through the deep snow dig down by hand and pull up a handful and stick it in the snow. Repeat this on as many swaths as you would like to open up and let the cattle work. (This can be something of a frustrating chore if you don’t know the width of the swather that cut your crop.)
You can’t just turn untrained cows into two feet of snow and expect them to do well. Start them on the system when there is only a little bit of snow. Having experienced cows with them will give adequate training to those welfare cows that you have been feeding every winter. Monitor them. If they are losing condition, you will have to adjust.
Why would I have trouble with not enough snow? There are a few reasons. A couple of years ago I was swath grazing 250 cows on a remote field and we had had no snow as of yet. I was counting on snow as a water source for that year but as a backup, I did have access to a couple of dugouts. Of course from October on, I kept telling myself that pumping water was a temporary measure until it snowed. Five months later, the swath grazing came to an end in February after I emptied two dugouts and hauled water for two weeks. Here is my lesson. Ensure that you have an economical backup plan for watering cattle in the winter.
On another occasion, we had about two inches of snow and the cows were doing great on a field of pea straw residue. It was well into February and we had a warm spell that melted the snow on the swaths. It then cooled off again