This two-part two of a series from the Beef Cattle Research Council of Canada on the ins and outs of graziers can work with crop farmers to feed animals during the winter months while improving soil health and productivity. Last week we looked at communicating, assigning value, and the importance of good fences. This week we take a look at how to manage livestock.
Know Your Conditions
Understanding the conditions and knowing when it is time to move cattle, or not put cattle out at all, is important to prevent damaging the crop land.
Where Bootsman is located, wet fields tend to be a problem, and being flexible helps to avoid damage in the fields. He tries to manage his cattle according to the conditions. In a high rainfall year, they may have to remove cattle, adjust grazing to later in the season, or not put cattle out at all. Later season grazing often allows cattle to help clean up farmer’s fields by removing regrowth.
Bootsman has noticed that heifers pace more than cows, so they may cause more damage along fence lines. In those cases, he works with the farmer and is willing to help pay for any extra tilling or working the land that is required to reduce any damage that is done but finds that by spring, most evidence of cattle grazing is gone.
Although wet conditions are often not the main problem for Axtens, they do like to see cattle graze after the ground has frozen. They feel that grazing at this time helps prevent damage and compaction of the soil. Axtens also like to see cattle only remove about 50% of the residue meaning that cattle are moved according to the amount of residue that is left over.
For Shea he also tries to alter his grazing plan to do minimal damage to fields. If he knows that specific fields have low or wet spots, he tries to graze those first so that they have the most time to recover. He has grazed wet fields before and finds that with good management and quick cattle moves, he can usually prevent any long-term damage.
Move Cattle Frequently
Short grazing periods was important for all producers to reduce the amount of damage that is done to crop land as well as prevent cattle from overgrazing. These specific grazing management decisions were different for each producer. For Bootsman, he likes to graze a group of 250 cows together in one herd. This allows a quarter of land to be grazed in five to ten days.
For Axtens having cattle on every acre was important but so was only taking half of the plant material. When cattle were grazing their land they liked to see most of the acres being used and if there were less nutrients available they would just move through quicker. Thompsons have tried different grazing techniques including a mob grazing style where large numbers of cattle were turned onto a cover crop or stubble for a short amount of time. Because of their large and diverse cattle herd, they can often gather a large herd of cattle to move quickly through a field, sometimes in only a few days.
Even with smaller cattle numbers, Shea is still able to move quickly over a piece of land. He uses portable electric fencing to build a “hub and spoke” grazing area in the paddocks. By placing the water source in the center of the field and fencing outward from there, he is able to move cattle every few days and allow them on a piece of land for a short amount of time. Spacing is key for this model, as Shea is often trying to make cattle clean up the cover crops so that they can seed a no-till crop in the following years with minimal problems. Shea finds that if you give cattle too much space, they will inevitably just lay on the crop and make a mess of things.
Use the Right Class of Cattle
It is important to match the nutritional needs of the cattle that will be grazing to the quality of feed that is available. Although supplementation is often an option it is typically harder to do on land that isn’t owned by the producer. A feed test can help determine which classes of cattle are best suited for the feed source available.
For Thompsons and Axtens, choosing the right class of cattle was important. Once Axtens decided what pieces of land they wanted grazed and when they wanted to graze it, Thompsons could then select the appropriate class of cattle to meet those requirements.
Bootsman says stubble can work well for maintaining body condition but stubble alone won’t work for lactating cows or growing steers or heifers without additional supplementation, he adds.
For the first few years Shea brought his spring calving (March/April) herd home from pasture in the fall and put both cows and calves out on to the cover crops. Although both the cows and calves came back in great condition, they had to bring them home before they had grazed all the cover crop to wean and market calves. Last year Shea sent the cows to the cover crops after weaning and backgrounded the calves. Turning just the cows out onto the cover crop meant that they were able to graze until early December.
Shea was originally concerned about both cows and calves being at risk for nitrate poisoning and bloat but has had no concerns with either. The cover crop mixture includes a cash crop base (usually oats), purple top turnip, and daikon radish for soil improvement, and some type of legume, although he hasn’t found a legume that works well in his area yet. He turns the cattle straight out from pasture onto the cover crop and has yet to have a problem with bloat.
Overall, grazing cattle on cropland can be a win-win strategy for both cattle producers and farmers as long as all cooperators are clear and upfront about the goals of the partnership. Starting small may be a good idea as it enables both producers to get their feet wet before committing to a larger partnership. Shea points out that, “every acre you graze is additional days you aren’t feeding cattle in a bunk so even a small amount is worth it.”
One More Thing
Check out this week’s Classic by NatGLC. Genevieve Slocum covers the importance of grazing cover crops to complete the nutrient cycle. It’s just one more thing to consider when working with crop farming neighbors. Genevieve also includes info on the kinds of cover crops to consider.