I was excited this fall to get my swath/bunch grazing underway as all 450 acres are right by the highway. Normally I am swath grazing down some back gravel road and no one really gets to see it. This year I get to show it off! My neighbours already think that I’m crazy, so now I can prove them right. I love to give them something to talk about and, believe me, a lot of folks are talking about this one. I was also preparing for the reactions that I would get because of the paradigm that cattle have to be fed during the winter.
We first started grazing 150 acres of pea straw residue in October. In this field we left the residue in swaths, as we were planning to graze this one early. We would not be as concerned about deep snow until later in the winter and the swaths are easier for the combine operator. We had quite a bit of rain in the fall and some warm weather which provided quite a bit of germination in and between the swaths. We pump water to a trough daily and provide minerals free choice. As this is only a crop residue and is relatively low in value feed, we need to supplement it with hay and/or a pellet ration daily. The ration is adjusted depending on the temperature. November and December provided a small amount of snow cover.
We stayed on this field until the end of December, when we moved to the second field — 280 acres of pea straw that we had bunched. To do this, we used what my daughter named “The Blue Buncher” attached to the back of the combine which collects the straw and chaff and puts it in small piles all across the field. Now that the snow was getting a little deeper (about nine inches), the piles were easier for the cattle to find.
January was very mild and the cattle were doing great. So far it has been one of the warmest winters that I recall. The cattle did, however, stop grazing the second growth between the swaths once the snow got deep. The piles were very easy to find and the grazing has been relatively worry free so far.
And then “it happened!” I was waiting for it. I knew it would come and on a beautiful day at the end of January I arrived at my swath grazing, only to find that I had a trespasser. Somebody had been there. Was it my keen eyesight that detected an extra set of tracks? Or was it the strange scent picked up by my trusted cattle dog? OK, so it was not quite so dramatic. Attached to my gate handle of my electric fence was an Alberta SPCA Notice — the dreaded Notice to Contact!
My first thought was, “Well, it’s about time.” Why did it take so long to get a complaint? I was expecting it long before the end of January. I called the officer right away and he stated that the notice was more of a courtesy call. He had already been out to see the swath grazing back in December because of multiple reports back then. He saw no issues of animal welfare so he did not want to bother me with the complaint. They have still been getting calls about “these poor cows along Highway 44 without any food.” He only wanted to make me aware about the reports and was quite content with our feeding program.
It’s nice to hear the SPCA officer say, “Your cattle look great.” We actually got into quite a conversation on how I get my animals to respect the electric fence so well in the winter. My training fence over the water trough is the key. I am pumping even though I know my snow is fantastic right now and the animals would do just fine on it. With a hot and ground wire over the water trough, the “very hot” fence here helps keep the animals respecting the “not so hot” fence out in the field.
We have a paradigm in this industry that cows need to be fed during the winter. I disagree and believe that cows can feed themselves. For years I have believed in the phrase, “Plants have roots, they can’t move and livestock have legs, they can move.”
By swath grazing or grazing residues, not only does it lower your labour and equipment costs, but it also spreads the manure and urine out on the land for you. I have not hauled manure in 19 years, and don’t plan to ever do it again. My cattle can do that for me. I truly believe that every grain acre needs to have livestock on it to recycle the nutrients. We live in a dormant season environment (a.k.a. winter). Every environment with a dormant season needs ruminant animals.
There are no ruminants in the rain forest as there is no need for them. The plant material there is broken down all year long by the soil organisms. When our seasons grow cold, our soil life stops working, but the bugs inside the rumen can continue to work recycling nutrients despite the cold. The cow is simply an employee of nature; 80 per cent of what she eats goes out the back end. She only takes 20 per cent off the top as her pay. The remainder is broken down by the rumen microbes and is deposited back out on the land.
Most of the nitrogen coming out the back end is in the urine. Through the manure hauling process, most of this nitrogen is lost due to runoff and volitization. When the cattle deposit the warm urine onto the frozen ground it cuts through the snow right to the soil. It then freezes in place and stays with the soil.
There is tremendous value to crop land by having cattle on it. Over time the land will become more nutrient dense and develop better soil characteristics. It needs the livestock just like the livestock needs the land. We should make it to the end of February this winter on the pea straw. Then we will move them back to a pasture to bale graze until calving in May.
The lesson I want to pass on today is to always be prepared to deal with the SPCA if you are swath or residue grazing, by the highway or not. Those boys like to see water being pumped. I also had my ration breakdown ready to show the officer. The supplemental hay and pellets were easily viewed from the entrance. I was already planning for his visit. I am sure the calls will continue to come in. This is a hard paradigm to break. The view from the pavement is exciting for many motorists.