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A Canadian Farmer’s Success Grazing Alfalfa

By   /  May 6, 2019  /  1 Comment

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The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef research. It is funded by industry, producers and the government and is directed by a committee of beef producers from across the country

After last week’s article about how to reduce our fear of bloat when grazing alfalfa, I got some good feedback from our readers and I learned some interesting things that I’ll be sharing with you in upcoming issues. In the meantime, here’s an example of how one farmer is successfully using alfalfa as part of his grazing system. It comes to us from the Beef Cattle Research Council.

The secret — if it is a secret — to pasturing cattle on alfalfa is to follow a few simple management steps to reduce the risk of bloat, say producers from across Canada who for years claim good success by including the forage legume in pasture mixes.

Photo by Ryan Boyd

Straight alfalfa stands can be managed quite well, but most producers today are favoring alfalfa/grass forage blends. They are very productive, produce excellent rates of gain on cattle, help to reduce the bloat risk, and also provide important biodiversity. Biodiversity benefits the cattle in providing a range of crops that mature at different times and can handle varying growing conditions, as well as biodiversity to benefit soil health.

The main “not to do” message is don’t turn somewhat hungry cattle into a pre-bloom high percentage stand of alfalfa and leave them to selectively graze the lush leaves. If there is a heavy dew or rain as well, it creates a perfect storm for bloat.

The key “to do” messages include making sure cattle move onto alfalfa pastures with a full gut and the forage stand is dry. Introduce them to lusher forage gradually by limiting the amount of area they have access to in a day, and force them to eat the whole plant including stems and not just leaves. Other “to do” strategies that some producers use — supply a bloat-control agent in cattle drinking water, make some dry hay available as well, as the fibre in hay reduces the risk of gas build up in the rumen, and include low-bloat forage legumes such as sainfoin in the pasture mix.

Here’s How It’s Worked for One Producer

Including alfalfa and other legumes in a pasture mix, managed under a rotational grazing program, has been a significant factor in increasing carrying capacity on Chris Knight’s beef operation, Clear Creek Farms, in Chatham, Ontario.

Chris Knight and family. Submitted photo

Knight, farming with his brother Carl, produces purebred Black Angus cattle for their own direct marketing program on Clear Creek Farms near Chatham. He estimates during the past 10 to 15 years that carrying capacity of their pastures increased by about 40 percent using high quality forages in an intensive rotational grazing program.”Since we have been rotational grazing we are able to produce 40 per cent more beef on the same acres, same land base,” says Knight. “Including alfalfa in the pasture mix has made a huge difference.” He says the legume is a high-quality forage with excellent growth early in the grazing season, and under dryer mid and late summer growing conditions, the deep roots of the legume reach moisture and keep the plant growing well into fall.

Knight has established mixed forages on pastures which are grazed from later May until early November. The blend includes between 50 to 60 per cent alfalfa along with some red and white clover as well as grasses such as orchard grass. While he knows there is an increased risk of bloat in grazing pastures high in legumes —particularly alfalfa —his management relies on timing.

Photo by Chris Knight

“I don’t turn cattle onto pastures until the stand is maturing,” says Knight. “I wait to see the alfalfa starting to bloom and even the grasses are beginning to head out. A beef animal’s rumen can’t handle that high 20 to 22 per cent protein. By waiting, the quality may not be as high, but the forage still produces good rates of gain on the cattle.”

Depending on the year and stand maturity, Knight first turns cattle onto pasture around the May long weekend beginning a rest-rotation grazing program over the next five and a half months.

“For example, we put 50 cow-calf pairs in a paddock about one-half acre in size and early in the growing season generally plan to move every day,” he says. As the season progresses, and plant growth slows down, using portable electric fencing, he increases the size of the paddock, but still plans to move cattle daily. He moves cattle through a sequence of paddocks and doesn’t return to any one paddock until it’s had 45 to 50 days of regrowth.

“We’re usually able to make three passes through each paddock but again we make sure they’ve had that rest and plants are beginning to flower before we bring cattle back again,” he says.

 

Photo by Chris Knight

He uses a forage species blend for several reasons. He likes the plant diversity that includes different plants with different rooting structures, which help to improve soil health and soil quality. While the farm is tile drained, he says with deep-rooted crops such as alfalfa, during high moisture cycles, helps water infiltrates quickly into the soil.The 2018 growing season was a good example. His area was extremely dry up until late July. Alfalfa was able to reach subsurface moisture and keep growing while other forage species stopped growing. Then in late July it started raining “and never really stopped”. It was timely rain that saved many annual crops. Forage stands rebounded but his fields didn’t become saturated with standing water. That’s another reason he likes to keep both red and white clover in the forage mix. Red clover isn’t as well adapted to handle a lot of moisture, while white clover can.

The legumes also help fix nitrogen in the soil. Combined with manure from the intensive rotational grazing system, “I haven’t needed a bit of added fertilizer since I started the intensive grazing system,” says Knight.

And with a rest-rotation grazing system, the stands appear to have good longevity. “Since I started about 15 years ago I haven’t had to reseed anything,” he says. “They are still productive.” By grazing pastures a bit later, cattle are also eating legume and grass seeds, which pass through their systems and are deposited back on the pasture in manure. “With this system the pastures seem to be just renewing themselves,” he says.

Knight says the alfalfa/grass forage mix provides plant diversity which is good for the soil, and the deep-rooted alfalfa provides insurance forage supply if or when growing conditions are dry. And good quality forages keeps mature cattle in good condition and provides good rates of gain on calves that in late fall move into an on-farm finishing program.

If you’d like to read more examples from farmers and ranchers using alfalfa in their grazing system, click on over to read more from the Beef Research Council.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Curt Gesch says:

    “Red clover isn’t as well adapted to handle a lot of moisture, while white clover can.” In our part of the world, if you don’t want alsike clover, which can take quite a bit of water, you use red clover. It certainly grows on the field next to our house in the parts where alfalfa finds things too soggy for its feet.

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