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Flexibility Key to Grazing Through the Winter

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

Thanks to the Beef Cattle Research Council of Canada for this article. It includes a lot of examples of how one producer is solving the problem of keeping his herd grazing through the season through rain, mud, snow and ice. You’ll also find ideas on weaning, handling and culling. Enjoy!

Variable weather is something Dean Manning is learning to work with on his mixed farming operation at Falmouth, Nova Scotia, about a 45 minute drive north of Halifax. With a 75 to 80 head commercial beef herd being about one half of his farming operation, and a market garden and vegetable production being about the other half, he’s been working to develop an extended, but flexible grazing system for his operation.

“I’ve always been interested in grazing management and probably focused more on getting the proper forage stand for a number of years,” he says. “Now I have more focus on extending the grazing system, which is often affected by increasingly variable weather patterns.”

Photo courtesy of Dean Manning

And as he moves cattle through a grazing system that has them outside about 90% of the time, he also pays attention to proper, gentle, handling practices, which makes management much easier. In recent years, he’s been working to extend winter grazing as long as possible. Through proper management of a rotational grazing system, he stockpiles forage on both native and tame pastures, he seeds some kale as an annual forage crop for fall and winter grazing, and has also saves part of his corn silage crop for winter grazing as well.

He says his cattle — a Red Angus based cowherd crossbred with continental breeds such as Limousin, Simmental and Charolais — are never really inside for winter feeding. “They are used to being outdoors so that is where they spend most of winter,” says Manning. “There is a loose housing barn they can use for shelter if the weather gets bad, but they come and go as they wish. And we have native pastures that are brushy and well treed so they use that as well if they need shelter from the weather.”

This picture links to an article on Quiet Wean Nose Flaps
In this article, John Marble demonstrates the use of the weaning nose flaps and describes how it works to give him peace and quiet, and more profit.

Manning runs both spring and fall calving herds. Calves from the spring herd are weaned in late October and sold as feeders, while calves from the fall herd are weaned in early April and sold in April and May. All calves are weaned with the Quiet Wean nose flap system. It is a system that allow calves to remain alongside their mothers, but once the nose flaps are attached they can no longer nurse. After three to five days of not nursing, the calves are weaned and can be separated from their mothers with considerably reduced stress on the cattle as well as humans who don’t want to listen to the bawling.

With most of the farm landbase devoted to forage production for winter feeding, Manning needs to haul cows to pasture. “We are sort of boxed in here where the farm is with little extra land available close by,” he says. “For summer grazing we need to haul cows to different pastures that may be one to two hours away.”

Tame pastures are a combination of mostly fine-leaf tall fescue, meadow fescue and festulolium, which is a cross between tall fescue and perennial ryegrass. Native pastures are a combination of native grasses, shrubs and trees. “The native pastures are fairly productive land for cattle but not suited for cultivation,” says Manning. “It provides good protection throughout the year if the cattle need shelter from the elements.”

Photo courtesy of Dean Manning.

In the rotational grazing system, the cattle move through the tame grass pastures three times over the growing season, while the native pastures are used once with maybe a second shorter or lighter grazing later in season. ”We try to leave some of the pastures to regrow so the stockpiled forage provides some late fall grazing,” he says. “But once it gets colder we get snow and sometimes freezing rain, or snow melts and freezes and then the pastures get this layer of ice and cows can’t reach the grass. Once it thaws or as we get closer to spring and the ice melts they can go back on those pastures.”

Kale and standing corn remain above the ice layer so they provide grazing later into the winter. While the cattle are grazing these winter crops, Manning also provides supplemental feed in the form of round bale grass silage.

“Sometimes the weather co-operates and we can make hay, but usually we have frequent rains, so most of the grasses are cut and baled at higher moisture and put into in-line wrapping which produces a long sealed tube of bales that turn into silage.”

For winter feeding, along with kale and/or corn grazing, silage bales are hauled out and placed in roundbale feeders to minimize feed waste. “If they are grazing standing corn, for example, we limit feed the corn area they can graze with a moveable electric fencing and we’ll place the round bale feeders on the area that has already been grazed and haul out new bales every day or two as needed. We also keep moving the feeders to a new location to help with manure distribution.”

Manning says, although he’s only used winter corn grazing for a couple years, it appears to work well. The cattle do well and it reduces the amount of feed he needs to haul. A downside can be the variable weather.

“If we have frozen ground, the cows can remain on the corn fields, but if we get a thaw they’d be up to their bellies in mud,” he says. When there is a thaw, he moves cows to other pastures with higher ground. He also moves the round bale feeders to those areas. If it freezes up again, cows can go back to the corn.

“With the variable weather we really have to keep things flexible and move to areas where conditions are more suitable.”

This picture links to a special collection of articles on low-stress livestock handling by Whit Hibbard
Would you like to work on your stockmanship skills? Here’s a Special Collection of articles by Whit Hibbard to get you going.

With the need to move cattle by truck to pasture, or just to move animals through rotation in summer, or to fields with better footing in the winter, Manning says it is important to use proper cattle handling practices so moves go smoothly.

“You need to have an understanding of animal behaviour and also be calm when working around cattle,” he says. “We also cull cattle based on their temperament. If you go into a field and something gets their head in the air and ears pointing forward to take off, that’s an animal that isn’t going to stay around this farm. We use calm and quiet handling procedures when handling the cattle and we also want cattle with a quiet temperament.”

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