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Grazing Cattle on Cropland Can Be Mutually Beneficial

beef cattle grazing fall stubble against purple foothills

When we hear stories of farms from previous generations, mixed operations are often the tradition, where people grew crops and had some cattle and other livestock as well. With economies of scale and farm size increasing, farms have generally become more specialized. However, recent rises in input costs and climate crises such as drought have many producers rethinking integrated farming operations.  

crop grazing special issue of The Wire e-newsletter
Click here for the special Cows and Crops issue of The Wire, the BCRC’s monthly e-newsletter.

This may mean owning both cattle and cropland, but it could also mean working with neighbours. In some situations, beef producers have been working with their cropping neighbours to develop mutually beneficial deals where both parties can benefit from having cattle on cropland.  

Integrating cattle and cropland is not new, but there are many questions about how it can work on our current landscapes. Researchers at the University of Manitoba have teamed up in search of answers. Dr. Yvonne Lawley, associate professor in the Department of Plant Science, and Dr. Emma McGeough, associate professor in the Department of Animal Science, have been working together on projects involving cover crops, polycrop blends, “shoulder season” grazing and extended grazing.  

Be Flexible and Manage Risk

“There is no such thing as a normal year,” says McGeough. She points out that while you can’t control the weather, having a diversified feeding strategy and relationships built with others in your area can help when plans need to be changed. Both researchers note that it is important to have a plan going into the grazing season, but it is just as important to have a plan B and be flexible if the weather throws a wrench in those circumstances. “You have risk management strategies and conditions you count on, but you have to be able to pivot if Mother Nature gives you a different set of conditions,” says Lawley. 

“All of these systems can help with risk management,” says McGeough. Whether it is grazing cover crops, grazing stubble or crop residue, salvaging a failed commodity crop or any other method of integrating livestock and crops, having these systems helps provide some safety in case of drought or other climate disasters.  

When talking to producers about adding cover crops or management practices to extend the grazing season, the two concerns Lawley and McGeough hear are that practices can be high-risk and high-cost. While these can be prohibitive, McGeough recommends trying practices out on a small scale first to see what will work in your area and on your operation. “Can you seed just a 20-acre plot to see if something will grow or manage only a small segment of your cattle a certain way rather than put all of your eggs in one basket?” she asks.

Trying new ideas on a small scale first can help to reduce risk and cost.

Photo credit: Dr. Emma McGeough

Even within their research trials, Lawley and McGeough have had to make adjustments due to weather. Over the years, between drought, flooding and hail, they have had to accommodate differences in seeding dates, change grazing timelines, salvage crops that were intended for harvest and even use some crops in different seasons than intended. While this can be frustrating it also provides real-world examples of how different systems may be used on farms and how sometimes that can have unexpected benefits. For example, due to weather conditions this year, they were late seeding an annual forage plot in July, however, that crop ended up greener and more lush than earlier seeded plots.  

“You can think of us as a bit of a case study for producers who are out there trying to do this,” says Lawley. “I provide the agronomy knowledge and Emma provides the animal experience.” The research team points out that communication has been vital to working together, as both come to the table with different knowledge, goals and expectations. “It’s about building that safe space to have a really clear dialogue where we can discuss how the agronomy affects the feed value and vice versa,” Lawley explains.  

Agronomic and Animal Considerations 

Key things to remember if thinking of salvaging a crop or grazing cropland for other reasons include:

  • Keep lines of communication open
  • Be willing to seek advice from professionals and others who have used similar systems
  • Have a back-up plan
  • Try new crops or mixtures on a small scale first
  • Match the class of cattle with the feed available
  • Feed test 
  • Ask about any withdrawal dates for products used on crops
Cow grazing salvaged lentils. Photo credit: Jesse Williams

Turning cattle out onto cropland can be beneficial as it can return nutrients to the soil, but there are concerns about compaction and uneven nutrient distribution. While many soil scientists are looking into quantifying the costs and benefits of having cattle of cattle on cropland, Lawley points out that by being strategic about what crop you plan to grow the following year can help mitigate the risk.  

“From a crop perspective, you are going in knowing that you may have to do some residue management or choose a crop that can thrive or at least cope with that,” she says. If grazing a crop with a lot of residue such as corn, you may want to consider a crop that can be seeded later in the following season to allow that residue to dry out. Working with an agronomist can help you plan what to seed next in the rotation. Depending on your fertility strategy, you may choose to seed something like a cereal after grazing annual cropland that could take advantage of the readily available nitrogen. Alternatively, you may choose a nitrogen fixing pulse crop that doesn’t need nitrogen early in the season to allow time for microbes to break down the nitrogen in time to mineralize and be available for the crop next year.  

If planning on using cropland for winter feed, it is necessary to think of how the crops themselves will respond to winter weather conditions and grazing. If cattle will be harvesting plants themselves in winter and snow, the crops’ ability to be accessible under snow needs to be evaluated. Considerations such as plant structure and leaf loss and retention late in the growing season are very important for extended grazing. 

Another thing to be aware of is the infrastructure required. When turning cattle out on cropland, fencing and water availability need to be considered. Do the logistics of setting up grazing pay off or would it be more economical to bale or silage the feed and move the feed to the cattle rather than the other way around? If extending the grazing season is a long-term goal on your operation, it may pay to invest in infrastructure like electric fencing or portable water systems or to build these materials up over time.  

Grazing cattle and crops together can be a win-win solution for both crop and cattle farmers with proper communication and the willingness to try new things and be adaptable to change.

Learn more in the BCRC’s post on the benefits of bringing cattle and crops together, which contains the following six tips for grazing cows on crops:

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