Editors Note: Troy Bishopp is sharing his progress this winter as he custom grazes dairy heifers on stockpiled pasture. If you’ve missed the first two articles in the series, here’s the first, and here’s the second. Here’s a summary of the last few weeks of grazing. You can follow week by week at his website.
In the first 5 weeks of grazing stockpile (October 17 – November 23), the weather has gotten colder, and we’ve had some snow. I’ve also picked up some extra days of grazing, with the heifers being able to stay longer in pastures than I had originally planned for. And then I’ve used some of those accumulated days to help my herd out when the temperatures dropped and the snow came down.
I have been laying out strips for grazing approx. 50’ x 350’. This is still consistent with the dry matter math, the standing forage and the needs of the cows who are quite contented. I have gone to morning moves because of my work at the Madison Co. Soil and Water Conservation District making it too difficult to get home before dark. Neither the cows nor I like having to navigate portable fencing in the dark. I also got my butt off the 4-wheeler and started walking up on the hill to move fences and get my daily cardio exercise which my doctor applauds.
You can see our progress in the grazing chart below through November 28th (just click on it to see it full size):
Welcome to reality grazing for the week of November 16th to the 23rd. Our prayers go out to the farmers around the Great Lakes who battled feet of lake effect snow while we enjoyed much calmer weather with the exception of the cold. If you’re following the grazing chart we moved off the hill and set up fences down around our woods in paddocks 7 and 8. We got a heavy 40 degree rain early in the week followed by 3” of snow and cold temps and 4” of snow on Thursday and Friday.
Call it good planning or luck, having the heifers close to the woods worked out like a charm in keeping the wind off them. The woods perimeter provided some nice leaf bedding. Trouble is the fields need the manure not where they camp.
What makes this grazing difficult is having the grass pounded by rain during the day and frozen at night. The clumps of orchardgrass fair ok but all the understory of clovers, forbs and bluegrass seem to melt into the soil and is hard for the cattle to vacuum up. Because of this I have to give them more forage and also because they eat more when the mercury heads downward. This weather pattern caused me to lose 2 days off my rotation. You’ve got to monitor this and adjust otherwise the animals won’t get enough groceries to remain healthy. I’ve also found that bulking them up before a storm on all the grass they can eat gives them energy to fight the cold and wind much better.
I’ve grazed lots of herds of beef cattle who have a nice fat layer to draw from as the weather closes in. Dairy heifers are (usually) not in this condition and require more feed because they just don’t carry the back-fat unless they have some mixed genetics. I have to feed the herd based on the Jerseys in the herd and watch the rumen fill to make sure they have enough. As Darrell Emmick said, there is an art in finding the balance.
Every day I check the water tub to make sure the gravity water keeps running through the 1 inch black plastic from the in-stream dam and over-flowing the tub. Someone said flowing water will never freeze. Well that may be true, but on Friday when the temps dropped to 10 my little dam and the leaves in it crusted over and froze the entire line and tub, rendering it useless. So without blinking an eye, I went to plan B (which you better have plus plan C, D, E, F and G). I opened a small section of paddock 15 where the creek goes through so they could get water. I’m not a huge fan of dairy heifers just eating snow for water because I’ve seen too much stress on them. I struggled with the decision a bit because us farmers are getting slammed for having animals in the stream. Christ, I’m employed to protect the water and here I am watering animals in it. Heathen!
In my defense, I only gave them a sliver of the field that has been resting for 135 days so I feel I did my best with the resources I have. In 2015 I’ll attempt to redesign the dam and install a bigger pipe so I won’t need Plan B.
The forage sample came back from Paddock 10 and showed 13 percent protein with 56 ME energy level. It’s a bit deceiving since they usually take the goodies the first 6 hours and need the older grass to offset the protein. They look good and barely bawl so they are content. The dairy nutrition websites say the heifers will do fine on this feed but would rather have 60-65 ME energy. As they continue through the paddock system the grass may actually get better since it hasn’t been sitting for so long. It is interesting to see how the forage height has “melted” down closer to the ground. I picked up an extra day to the plan which brings me to 6 days ahead of schedule.
Paddock 12’s forage test came back and was a bit better than paddock 10 with 14% protein, 62NEL and RFV of 104 which is more in line with the heifer’s needs. For those who wanted to know, my daily grazing fee is $1.20/day/head. Do you know what your daily grazing is worth to you? Generally at our place this offsets $2.00 to 2.30 worth of full hay feeding per head per day including yardage.
I took forage samples at the peak of frostiness in Paddock 8 and 6 which have been resting for 137 days and 100 days respectively. I only took the top 6 inches instead of all the extra brown stuff to mimic what the animals are eating that first 4 hours of grazing. My gut was substantiated by the test and the manure quality, that indeed this forage was good shit. Take a look at the tests. You could milk cows on this feed, which has been my point all along. You’d have to manage them to only utilize the top 8 inches but there is opportunity. And this is “Grandpa’s grass” not some recent planted variety.
I’m still intrigued by how they act when they enter one of these thin paddock strips. They consistently piss me off as they walk over my hard earned forage looking for the best bite and may move back and forth 3 or 4 times before they settle in to really graze. I can really see the practice of multi-moves per day to prevent this but I don’t have the time. I can only imagine what turning them into a huge piece would be like for utilization. Ugh!
Being a curious cuss, I did a 50 dollar test to view animal behavior for your benefit. With the quality forage in the field, I wanted to see how hard they would hit a bale of 1st cut baleage. I’m convinced they remembered the sound of the tractor and equated it to the gravy train. They came rushing at me from their paddock break to partake in an old familiar tradition. I do all the work and they do practically nothing. Upon dropping the bale into the feeder there was a huge skirmish to taste but after the euphoria wore off they just followed me around like I had other treats. After a while almost all of them went back to eating grass so I thought maybe they didn’t want any welfare.
When I showed up the next morning my experiment was confirmed. They ate all the balage and grazed like crap plus made mud around the feeder. Given the choice over easy vittles versus work, most will choose easy calories, including me. No more gravy train, heifers, its back to work!
December 6 Pasture Walk
At this writing we had almost 70 degrees yesterday which allows for mud and animal impact. I would much rather have 20 degrees and frozen ground as not to damage the soil surface. This will most likely cause me to give them bigger paddocks to combat the pugging which as you know already will mess up my grazing plan. Maybe I should have planned them to be in a hardened barnyard to mitigate this situation. Organic folks frown on this practice but it is a consideration since it impacts next year’s plants.
They entered paddock 4 & 5 on Saturday, November 29th and are moving down the hill towards our house for this coming Saturday’s pasture walk. Because everything will be so handy, there will be lots of opportunity to look at animal body scores, residuals, riparian grazing, worm life, forage heights, predicting pasture allocation, forage sampling and seeing what the next 30 days will look like. The weather looks to be in the 30’s with chances of rain and snow all week so be prepared with your car harts. We’ve got 30 folks signed up so far with more registering daily. Click here for more information on how you can join us too! We need a final tally by Thursday, December 4 so we can prepare the right amount of food for lunch.
AND, there’s a prize! The first pasture walk visitor to tell me what paddock the cows will be in on the day of the walk will win a Grass Whisperer designed t-shirt.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for more updates! And if you want to see more, head on over to my website.