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Winter Grazing and Weaning Calves


The ranchers in this 4-minute video don’t bring their cattle in and feed them over the winter. They’ve found that bale or swath grazing is a much more economical, low labor way of carrying their stock through the winter. Here they talk about when and how they wean and feed their calves as part of their winter grazing systems. Some separate calves from moms, others leave the calves with their moms through the winter. Some graze swaths, others bale graze.

Take a few minutes to find out what these ranchers learned about what worked best for them based on their goals, their resources and feed quality in this video that is part of Alberta Agriculture’s excellent series on winter grazing systems. It could save you from making mistakes you don’t have to make.

Want More?

To find out if swath grazing is for you, check out this article by Jim Gerrish.

Is Swath Grazing for You?

For tips on making swath grazing work, visit this section of our On Pasture library.

If swath grazing doesn’t work in your region, bale grazing could be for you instead. We have bale grazing how-tos in this section of the On Pasture library.


Doug Wray, Wray Ranch, Irricana, Alberta: The weaning event is – walk into that corral get separated from mama, she stays in the corral and the calves are in the grass outside the corral and then they go to swath grazing pretty quick from there. Being out in the open all winter on these swaths, the health is awesome, like we haven’t treated a thing.

Tom Thompson, Winding Creek Angus, Mayerthorpe, Alberta: A low-stress animal is a happy animal. An animal that’s happy will be healthier and gaining weight. With low-stress weaning, or the soft-wean is basically in the fall, they’re preconditioned, they have their vaccinations and then they go back on the cow and then in the spring, they’re brought in and separated and the cows go on one side and the calves go on the other. This is monitored so when the stress is down and everybody’s happy and knows this is what’s happening and they go back to eating the full amount that they should be eating, then we can start doing other management, move them where ever we want. So if you want to do a spring wean, it’s great, but you have to keep in mind that it takes 30% more forage, but you only have one herd to look after instead of two and the stress is the main thing and the animal behavior is huge as they’re teaching each other. So you have to weigh these things out. Plus, the calf is getting supplement from the cow. Course the body condition has to be watched.

Jess Hudson, Hudson Ranch, Bashaw, Alberta: We found that we could wean calves early and we could put a lot of weight on our cows, our we could wean calves late and put a lot of weight on our calves. It almost added up to the same amount of pounds, but you could tell which animal you put it on by early weaning vs. late weaning. You’re gaining the same weight, you’re just putting it on a different class of animal.

Jim and Barb Bauer, Anchor JB Ranch, Acme, Alberta: Well we’ve done different things with our calves. We usually start them on swaths with their mothers when they come near the yard. We’ll settle them there and then we’ll wean. And then we’ll turn the calves back out in the field. We have swath grazed calves over the years, but we tend to rather feed them than swath graze.

James Madge, Madge Farms, Hanna, Alberta: Being on the swath grazing, just the grain intake they get out of the swaths, any calf that’s had some grain before they hit the feedlot setting, it’s not as new to them once they see the grain in the ration. So they seem to transfer into full ration quicker than calves that have just come off of grass.

Doug Wray: We have for ten years now been backgrounding our calves and we’ve tried really hard to do it with swath grazing. If we can wean the calves and put them onto swaths then they’re getting a higher quality of feed.

Grant & Gerry Taillieu, Tomahawk Cattle Ranch, Tomahawk, Alberta: We’ve even bale grazed calves before. We did it for a few winters – three I believe. First two, it worked great. We were really happy. We bale grazed those calves, they got fresh bales every three days, access to creep feeders whenever they wanted it. Third year we realized we had a big problem. And it wasn’t feed quality issue, it was feed type. There was too much stem in the hay tha tyou never would have noticed. But it gave us big pinkeye problems in those calves. We were spending way too much time treating. So you need soft, palatable hay in order to bale graze calves.