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Recycle crop residues

Attach a chaff buncher to the back of your combine to collect straw and chaff

Did you know that 80 per cent of what goes in the front of a cow comes out the back end? Most of us might think it is a waste and wonder why the cow is such an inefficient creation? Eighty per cent is wasted! If man made the cow, or at least a machine that did the job of the cow, we would make her 95 per cent efficient.

But let’s think about that for a minute. Why is the cow only 20 per cent efficient? Maybe there is another purpose. Maybe it is not for the benefit of the cow at all but for the benefit of nature to recycle nutrients. In a rainforest, there is no need for ruminants as the soil is always alive with microbiological life that can break down and recycle the plant material 365 days a year. However, in an environment with a dormant season, like our winter, the soil life goes dormant and the nutrient recycling activity stops. It is the ruminant that allows the microbes to live in an environment that they can survive in and still do their job. The cow provides the bugs with a place to work, inside her rumen. Nature gets to recycle nutrients and the cow takes her 20 per cent wage off the top, 80 per cent goes back to nature. The problem in agriculture is we see the cow as the be all and end all of our operations. In reality, she is only one tool in the big picture and until we wrap our heads around that, we will not be sustainable.

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To all you grain farmers out there, what if I told you that you could sell a second crop off your field in the same year with no extra cost? Would you be interested? The ruminant can also help recycle your crop residues. Chaff bunching is a fantastic concept that more grain producers need to take a look at. I am a market for my local grain farmers. If they have a poor crop to salvage, or residues to recycle, I market my services to help recycle their residues. Or I should say, I offer the services of my cattle. I even put up the fencing in the fall and remove it in the spring.

This year will be known as the drought of 2015 in my area. The price of hay is skyrocketing. When I look around it shocks me because I know we have a very economical feed source right at our fingertips and only a handful of producers utilizing it. Crop residue grazing is almost unheard of in my area. Baling up your straw is only exporting more valuable nutrients off your land.

A chaff buncher is a very simple device that attaches to the back of a combine to collect the straw and chaff. It simply works like a teeter-totter and dumps the chaff in piles across the field. It is a series of long tines that once the straw builds up on it, will also hold the chaff. It makes small piles all over your grain field. Once it fills up, the buncher tips and the stubble pulls the piles off the tines and leaves a nice little pile.

The key to this method of feeding is to strip graze it. I would never just turn my cows into the whole field. Strip grazing across these piles with a one-, two- or a three-day graze period gives you more even nutrition to the cattle and much better utilization of the feed. (You can decide which is better for you depending on your labour and equipment costs.) Small piles are also cleaned up a lot better than large piles as the cows stand around it to eat and when they lay on it, they don’t soil it as they usually lay with their back ends off the pile.

We live in a dormant-season environment. The land needs ruminants on it! I believe all grain farmers need to somehow incorporate winter grazing on their land. It is great for the land as a lot of your residues are only weathering and not really recycling properly without the use of a ruminant. I know that this is a tough sell to diehard grain farmers but we need to think long term. We need to break out of our paradigms and think about economic sustainability for generations.

I told you that we have already built a replica of the cow. We argue about which colour is best and which one is the most efficient. We call this tool a combine. We harvest the plant material by removing about 80-90 per cent of the nutrients and export it off our land. We only leave 10 to 20 per cent to be recycled but in reality, most of this weathers. Is this sustainable? Not near as sustainable as our ruminant model. What happens when we can’t get fertilizer? Or it just gets too expensive?

It does come down to profitability and that means you would have to do your own numbers. It could be a neighbour looking to find a new feed source this year and he would pay you to recycle your nutrients. They would even take care of the fencing I’m sure. I would think it would be very appealing to get a second crop from your fields on any given year, even more so in a drought. You might just find that your profitability goes up in the long term, even though your efficiency goes down.

Chaff bunching is not difficult.  It actually lowers my labour and equipment usage a great deal. With a little fall fencing to make the strip grazing easier, I think it is a no-brainer. Yes, huge snowfalls can cause issues but I have had more issues with not enough snow, as well. Piles are easier to find than swaths. We are farmers, so there is risk with almost everything we do.

Try one small field this year and graze for a month or two. Learn how to set it up and once you have your confidence, maybe next year, try a bit more. I hope to be grazing well into January this winter on a couple of fields of chaff piles. When bunch grazing, I would always recommend a feed test and supplement accordingly for protein and minerals. I usually like to supplement a bit anyway as most grain crops I get are monocultures, which are not natural for cattle. The cattle can develop mineral imbalances while grazing a monoculture. Even better, try to graze the residues of a polyculture crop; but that is even a harder pill for grain farmers to swallow, so I will leave that alone for today. I will be bunch grazing a pea/canola field this fall. Polycultures rock! Check out the seminar posted on my website about grazing residues.

About the author

Contributor

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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