Producers share ideas for developing safe and relatively economic pastures with greater longevity
While the old nursery rhyme says Mary the contrary used several odd techniques to get her garden to grow, Canadian beef producers are relying more on new forage varieties, new forage blends and new management approaches to not only produce more grass, but also help to extend the grazing season.
Producers are looking for different things from forages — that includes varieties that come into production early and hold their quality later, varieties and species that tolerate drought, others that don’t mind wet feet, legumes that have high production but minimize the risk of bloat, and grasses, legumes and even annual crops with the versatility to be grazed, baled or silage — these are among the features being evaluated and incorporated into forage mixes across the country.
Some of the old standbys such as bluegrass and timothy are still common in established pastures, but there are plenty of new grasses and legumes finding a fit. Blends are popular – mixes of grasses and legumes, combinations of early and later maturing forages, even warm and cold season species are all being used to increase forage production and extend the grazing season.
Producers are also using innovative techniques to get seedings established. Some of the newer varieties, many now being used in blends, aren’t necessarily cheap. Depending on the variety mix and actual seeding technique, producers report the cost of creating new and/or improving established pastures can range from $80 to $400 per acre. That may sound like heady figures to grow grass, but if you can get improved forage production, extend the grazing season and produce more pounds of beef, the amortized costs can actually pencil out quite well.
Whether they are producing beef cattle on Nova Scotia’s north shore, in central New Brunswick, northeastern Ontario, southern and central Saskatchewan, or in central or southern Alberta, these producers are just examples of the effort being put into improved forage production. Grass just doesn’t happen, it takes time, management and investment to grow more feed, that will ultimately produce more pounds of beef.
Over the past 14 years, Cedric MacLeod has been working to develop mixed stands of legumes and grass forage blends on pastures on his central New Brunswick farm.
The executive director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to forages, as a producer himself he walks the walk on his farm near Centreville. As he strives to extend the grazing season as long as possible, ultimately to produce and market grass-finished beef, MacLeod says he has found alfalfa and clovers work well with a mix of grasses with maturity that varies over the growing season.
He has developed 22 paddocks on the 105-acre farm, where he and family members operate and direct market Local Valley Beef. Each paddock is managed on roughly an eight-year rotation before it needs to be re-seeded.
“I like to start pastures with a seed mix that includes about 50 per cent alfalfa along with about 50 per cent of a blend of grass species,” says MacLeod. He has been using the Shockwave variety alfalfa in a seed blend that includes orchard grass, tall fescue, meadow fescue, and Italian ryegrass to make up the grass component.
“I try to include grass seed varieties with different maturities,” he says. The orchard grass, for example, which is very digestible and aggressive “is out of the gate early” for early season grazing, while the tall fescue stands do well even later in the year when there is snow on the ground. The meadow fescue is shorter but a very prolific high producing and nutritious forage. The Italian rye grass, also a fast growing and aggressive crop, works well as a cover crop during the establishment year.
MacLeod agrees it takes an investment to establish a new pasture, but on his farm it produces a good return. He estimates it costs between $350 and $400 per acre for a new seeding. That includes about $55 per acre for the grass seed mix; $30 per acre for peas and oats cover crop; $150 per acre for fertilizer; and $140 for lime, seeded with his no till drill.
“In this part of the country I am looking at a carrying capacity of one acre per cow for the season,” says MacLeod. “That’s one cow with a calf per acre and that calf is likely going to go on to produce a $3,000-plus carcass. It may cost $400 to establish that acre of forage but I’m also expecting that forage stand to remain productive for at least four and often up to seven years, so that a range from $100 to about $60 per year, which I consider is pretty good value.”
While cattle are moved regularly through each paddock over the grazing season, MacLeod says the pastures are grazed fairly hard three to four times during the year. Between grazing pressure generally low persistence, and high moisture during the growing season, he says the alfalfa begins to play out after two to three years.
Usually in year three he begins a fairly common practice in parts of Eastern Canada — frost seeding. Forage seeds are broadcast applied on still frozen ground in early spring, and left for frost action during freeze-thaw cycles and hoof action of grazing cattle to work seeds into the soil later into the grazing season. The frost seeding forage blend includes Alice white clover along with the orchard grass, fescue and Italian ryegrass seed mix. As the stand matures he says he may need to spend $20 per acre in later years for frost seeding, but he considers that a maintenance cost.
While cattle rotate through most of the paddocks during the early spring to late fall grazing season, MacLeod also has the paddocks in rotation as winter-feeding sites each year. “Each year we use a different paddock for winter bale grazing,” he says. “Our cattle have some form of grazing year round. Bale grazing puts all the manure and nutrients back on the pasture and between that and the legumes we don’t need to apply added nitrogen to the fields, but we do need to balance soil pH with lime, phosphorus and potassium with commercial fertilizers.”
Again, after another two or three years of summer rotational grazing and winter bale grazing, paddocks will be seeded to an annual crop such as corn for late fall grazing. Paddocks will have one to two years of annual forage crops before being seeded to perennial forage stands.
MacLeod says he hasn’t run into too many disappointments with forage varieties. He did try a relative new hybrid Festulolium — a successful cross between a fescue and a ryegrass, but he wasn’t impressed on how that performed on his farm “so I stayed with the grass, legume blend I was using,” he says.
He says experience has taught him not to take shortcuts when it comes to forage seeds. While it may be tempting to use lower cost common seed — “I tried that and I never won,” he says. “I’m always further ahead to use the best variety and the best quality, proven and tested certified seed I can find. With good quality seed, the stand establishes better with more vigorous plants.”
Tall fescue, birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, forage rape and turnips — these are among new species John Duynisveld is trying on his Nova Scotia farm not only to improve the quality of pasture, but also in hopes of extending the grazing season.
With a multi-species farming operation, where he buys all winter-feed, keeping livestock on pasture longer helps to reduce costs.
“The longer I can graze livestock the better,” says Duynisveld who along with family members operates Holdanca Farms near Wallace, on Nova Scotia’s north shore. “All of the farm is pasture, so I have to buy hay for winter feed. Grazing as long as possible helps to lower the feed bill.” Depending on the year he hopes not to be feeding cattle before Christmas — and a delay of even a week or two makes a difference.
The farm includes 250 acres of developed pasture. That supports a flock of 150 ewes, a 30-head cowherd, another 40 head of young cattle being backgrounded and grass finished, and he also custom grazes about 75 head of cow-calf pairs for other producers. Along with farming, Duynisveld is also a research biologist specializing in beef and pasture management with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research station at nearby Nappan, NS.
Most of the long-established pastures are a varied mix of blue grass, timothy, orchard grass, meadow fescues and red and white clovers. In recent years Duynisveld has tried different species and varieties.
About five years ago, he reseeded one pasture with a mix of Kora tall fescue, AC Langille birdsfoot trefoil and timothy. Another area was reseeded to the same tall fescue and Wildcat red clover. So far he has been impressed.
“Our plan was to establish these pastures, take an early cut of hay and then let the forages grow to stockpile the fescue for later fall grazing,” says Duynisveld. “Five years later and I am quite surprised — there is still 20 to 30 per cent of trefoil in the forage stand, I can see new trefoil plants coming underneath, so it appears to keep reseeding itself. And the tall fescue has done very well. It is not as coarse as some fescues and while it grows well, it also allows other plants to grow with it. It has produced well and perhaps adds another two to three weeks to the grazing season in the fall.”
Also, the trefoil and red clover pasture has produced well over the past five years, too, he says. He says finishing cattle have gained as much as 2.5 pounds per day on the pasture, without risk of bloat.
Duynisveld was also pleased with another pasture seeding last year. It was a combination of the AC Langille trefoil, Wildcat red clover and an annual rye grass. The 2017 growing season was so dry that the annual rye grass died out, but the trefoil and red clover appeared strong despite dry growing conditions. He was able to graze the pasture twice during the season, with the forages coming back well this spring.
Duynisveld says he was impressed with the drought tolerance of the legumes, noting the grazing rotation has to be managed carefully. He moves cattle every day or two as he has found trefoil is more sensitive to grazing pressure.
Another forage mix he is planning to seed this summer to help extend fall grazing includes a blend of forage brassica, pearl millet, sorghum/sudan grass and an annual clover. Forage brassicas are crosses of forage-type kales, turnips, Asian leaf vegetables, cabbage and radish. The plan is to allow cattle to graze an existing pasture heavily and then direct seed the blend into sod in July.
“In this area when we get into late fall we can have wet and fairly warm conditions,” says Duynisveld. “So I want to establish the new pasture on sod, otherwise if I worked the field first it could all just turn to mud when cattle are turned in come late October or November.”
VAL GAGNE, ON
Jason Desrochers lets his cattle and winter feeding program do some of the pasture reseeding on his northern Ontario farm.
With lots of bush in his area, he uses a sheer blade on a crawler tractor each year to clear bush and brush from about 10 to 15 acres he’ll use as a winter feeding site. He feeds hay and silage on that area to his 240 head cowherd or backgrounding calves for the winter. Seeds from the blend of orchardgrass, timothy, and birdsfoot trefoil hay get distributed across that winter feeding site. Seeds shell out as hay is placed over different parts of the 10 acres over winter, and they are also moved around as they pass through the cattle and are deposited in manure. Over the following growing season or two an excellent pasture stand emerges.
“We have done this for about 15 years,” says Desrochers who along with his brother run a mixed farming operation just northeast of the TransCanada Highway in the Timmins area. “And it has worked extremely well. We get a better seed catch and pasture stand establishment just by winter feeding on 10 to 15 acres than if we worked the land and seeded with a drill.”
For example, this coming 2018/2019 winter they will feed on a sheered area and then allow that site to rest and grow for the 2019 growing season “and by the following year there will be a tremendous pasture stand of all the forages that were in our hay,” he says. “It is relatively low cost, all manure and urine from the cattle goes back on the land, the cattle are out all winter. They may use some hay for bedding, but they clean up most of it, there is very little waste and they stay extremely clean — it works very well.”
Desrochers says it is only a few acres per year, “but after 15 years you’ll have another 200 acres of pasture and it didn’t cost that much to get it established — it really seeded itself.”
A sheer blade used on brush and smaller trees on frozen ground will leave stems and roots in the ground, while the surface brush can be windrowed or piled and burned. Desrochers says the residue left on the ground after sheering doesn’t affect cattle grazing. It is a faster and lower cost clearing operation that doesn’t require grubbing out roots and picking up all the sticks. That material will breakdown on its own over the years.
“We open up this bush area, it provides a good grazing area for cattle and after a few years as the roots and other residue breaks down we can go in and hay those areas too,” he says. “We clear a few more acres every year, and on the other end of things some of the older pasture areas can now also be used for hay.”
Sheering bush and winter-feeding isn’t the only way Desrochers establishes permanent pasture. He recently worked up about 116 acres on land where he first installed tile drainage. The first year the field was seeded to canola, then seeded to straight feed barley in 2018. In 2019 it will be seeded to oats as a cover crop and underseeded to a blend of orchard grass, reed canary, timothy, birdsfoot trefroil and white clover. On most of Desrochers pastures there are also a wild purple vetch and blue grass that seem to seed and establish themselves naturally. The first cut of the new pasture will be taken as hay in early 2020 with the regrowth used for pasture that fall.
Clearing land will eventually bring more hay and pasture land into production at one time, but Desrochers say from an economic standpoint they prefer creating pasture on winter feeding sites.
He estimates sheering the bush and brush off those 10 to 15 acre winter feeding sites costs about $220 per acre for the sheering operation. “We are going to feed cattle somewhere so feeding on those sites is not an extra cost,” says Desrochers. “It will cost a bit more for fuel to haul the hay a bit further, but that’s not major.”
On the other hand to fully farm up the same sort of bush and brush land costs about $1,000 per acre for sheering and heavy discing to get the land broken up, and relatively clean for seeding. And seeding costs are a further $150 per acre.
“If we need to prepare more land for annual crops or hay then clearing is an option,” says Desrochers. “But our preference is to bring those smaller winter feeding sites into forage production. It’s lower cost and we feel we get a better pasture stand for a lot less work.”
SIMON DE BOER
Simon de Boer is trying to teach some old pastures some new tricks as he interseeds new legumes into established grass and legume pasture stands — and he is pretty sure he doesn’t have to worry anymore about cattle bloating.
de Boer, who is part of the family run Monarch Feeders at Monarch, AB just west of Lethbridge, has been working to establish a large grazing area for yearlings in central Saskatchewan over the past decade or so. In 2006 they began seeding about 4000 acres of one-time cropland near Raymore, north of Regina, to a blend of alfalfa, cicer milk vetch and grasses. However, in the early going cattle bloating on pasture was a problem they had to learn to manage.
“There was definitely a learning curve,” says de Boer. “But we did learn how to manage it. For several years we seeded some new areas and then we decided to hold off just to see how these pastures were doing.”
Part of the learning curve and management of bloat risk involved timing of grazing, but also as the years passed, the legume (alfalfa) component of the forage mix declined so the risk naturally reduced.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever had a real so called failure with a forage stand,” says de Boer. “With a pure or heavy alfalfa stand we learned pretty quickly that bloat can be a problem, but you learn to manage that. Looking back I don’t think I would do anything different, except now add sainfoin to the blend. The overall increase in beef production from grazing legumes has easily compensated for any losses due to bloat, and now with sainfoin that concern is virtually eliminated.”
The original forage seed blend included 10 pounds of meadow brome, 1½ pounds of both tap root and creeping alfalfa, two pounds of cicer milkvetch and one pound of creeping red fescue. The grass species have held up reasonably well in the pasture, but de Boer has been working the past couple years to re-introduce legumes. And that plan has included alfalfa as well as sainfoin.
Developing a partnership with a seed company, they acquired the rights to a recently registered sainfoin variety (Glenview) developed at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge Research Centre. It was part of the forage breeding program led by Dr. Surya Acharya. Acharya’s research over the years has shown the risk of cattle bloating is greatly reduced (virtually eliminated) if a legume (alfalfa) stand includes at least 20 per cent sainfoin (a non-bloat legume).
“Our plan the last couple of years has been to go back into these original seedings and re-seed with both alfalfa and sainfoin,” says de Boer. Depending on the seed batch, the legume blend has included one and a half to two parts sainfoin to one part alfalfa — roughly a 2:1 ratio. “It’s probably a bit heavier to sainfoin than it needs to be,” he says. “But it’s a productive and high quality forage and it just further helps to reduce the risk of bloat.”
de Boer says the cost of establishing a new legume/grass pasture blend does add up, but at the same time he sees those costs spread over not just several by potentially many years of production. “Realistically the annual amortized cost is less than the cost of a pint of Guiness,” he quips.
He says an example of a seed blend could include 10 to 15 pounds of sainfoin – value $30 to $45; 1½ to two pounds of alfalfa seed – $6 to $8; six to eight pounds of grass seed with a value of $20 to $30; and $25 to $50 per acre for land preparation and seeding costs. Those figures add up to a range of $80 to $135 per acre.
“If you are starting a new seeding I figure it is going to cost somewhere around $100 per acre, depending on specific circumstances,” says de Boer. Cost variations will depend on the quality and genetics of seed used as well as seeding rates.
“But in my view if that stand is properly managed with rotational grazing and rest, it could last 25 to 35 years, so if you spread establishment costs over the potential life of the stand it’s not that great. And if you are renewing or interseeding into an existing stand, costs are even lower.”
Pastures planned for re-seeding are grazed fairly heavily prior to seeding, then sprayed with a one-half litre rate of glyphosate, before seed is sown with a John Deere single disk seed drill. de Boer’s approach has been to direct seed the sainfoin/alfalfa blend into the existing pasture sod. After a delay of one to two days, cattle may be put back on seeded pastures after spraying just to clean up any grass.
“We don’t necessarily aim to kill the grass but set it back enough that the legumes can get a good start,” says de Boer. By his observation, he says the old surviving alfalfa in the pastures does seem to respond. “Whether it is the result of a dry year which can be hard on grasses, or whether its applying this lighter rate of glyphosate, if the grass is held back it seems to kick-start the legumes again,” says de Boer.
While he is feeling confident about the practice, he says it is still a bit early to know whether interseeding established pastures with the alfalfa and sainfoin will fully renew pastures. “We’re getting a good seeding rate on these pastures, but forages are a bit slow to establish,” he says. Depending on the growing season, farmers may not see a significant difference in plant populations the first year of the seeding. “Once there is moisture and certainly in the second and third year those new plants will be coming on strong. So we’re hoping to make some proper assessments with clips to measure biomass production this summer to determine the success of these seedings.”
de Boer says his hope with interseeding legumes is to boost pasture productivity, while at least reducing if not eliminating the risk of bloat. With the combination of legumes he’s hoping to get three to five years out of the alfalfa, while the sainfoin appears to sustain production with greater longevity.
With about 6,000 acres of mostly native range comfortably carrying their beef herd for summer grazing, Tamara Carter says in many respects it is the early spring and post weaning pastures on their southwest Saskatchewan ranch along Lake Diefenbaker that afford most management flexibility.
Their commercial Black Angus beef herd begins calving in April and most years will head out to native range sometime between June 1 and 15. The ranch has an 80 acre “swing” pasture of mostly meadow brome and alfalfa that, depending on the year, can be used either in early spring or fall as pasture as needed, or cut for hay in mid summer. Another 100 acres on the ranch, previously in crested wheat was used for early spring grazing but poor productivity prompted the Carters to convert that field for fall and winter grazing of annual crops. “We really like a combination of German millet and CDC Haymaker forage oats for swath grazing,” she says. “It’s very productive and holds its quality. It has large, waxy leaves that stay green through the entire season. The cows dig right through the snow to get to it and it’s still green, with good feed value.”
She did point out it is important to pay attention to (investigate) varieties when adding some of these newer forages to pastures or swath grazing systems. “In one of our first experiments with swath grazing, we used German millet in combination with oats and were impressed with the results,” says Carter. “A couple years later, we were offered a great price on another millet, Proso, since another rancher backed out of the sale. The price was great so we tried it. Big mistake. We didn’t like it at all. It was short, it didn’t have the production, we didn’t like the leaves, the seed heads were more like birdseed. Do your research and make sure the varieties are suitable for your feeding goals.”
So Carters are back to the German millet this year and the millet/oat blend will be seeded in June, swathed in early fall, and carry the cowherd into January. On some pastures they also added some clover and cicer milkvetch to boost protein levels since native grasses drop significantly in late season.
“As feed costs are the largest expenditure on most ranches, we took a hard look at how we were managing our operation in 2010-2011 after buying out previous partners,” says Carter. “We had a lot of money tied up in iron and needed to find ways to make the cows do more of the work to reduce our costs and labour.”
They sold almost all of the machinery associated with putting up feed, including a forage harvester, silage trucks, chaff wagon, baler, and haybine, and replaced it with an older bale processor and bale unroller for under $9,000. “We realized that forages had to play a larger role in sustaining our herd to achieve better profitability,” says Carter.
Being able to get rid of machinery and extend the grazing season into fall and winter has made a considerable improvement in production efficiency, says Carter. Looking at it in terms of pounds of calf weaned per acre, she says under the full feed silage system they were producing five pounds of calf weaned/acre. “We were using a large land base to produce each pound. We wanted to improve efficiencies to generate more pounds off the same land. As we moved into the extended grazing system, that increased to 12 pounds of calf per acre and then as we made further improvements in both summer and winter grazing efficiency that increased to 20 pounds of calf weaned per acre. Overall through this change in feeding systems we have increased the pounds of calf weaned per acre by four-fold. Since cattlemen are paid by the pound, any way we can increase our production using the same resources helps our bottom line.”
In 2015, she joined the Saskatchewan Forage Council, which she now chairs, to have more contact with researchers and learn about new options. Accessing these resources has helped to make more changes in how Carters grow and utilize feed. “We have now experimented with bale grazing, swath grazing, electric fencing of smaller paddocks and have even tried corn.” In fact, the corn performed so well because of the above normal precipitation in 2016, they had much more feed than anticipated. “It grew eight feet tall and we had corn, and corn, and then more corn,” laughs Carter, “we would definitely grow it again.” It sustained the herd through fall and well into the new year.
With the cow-calf pairs remaining on pasture until weaning in early November, the Carters are interested in increasing fall-grazing options as much as possible. “We usually don’t start winter feeding until some point in January,” she says. “And anything we can do to encourage these animals to work for their own feed, so we don’t have to start a tractor, so much the better.”
“One change we’ve made in recent years, at the beginning of the grazing season, is to hold cattle on the flood plain along the river in early spring, before heading to the native grass,” says Carter. “And that has worked well.”
Particularly the area that floods later in the season isn’t much more than weeds such as fox tail barley and quack grass, but early in the year those weeds and wild grasses do have decent feed value. “We consulted with Sask Ag forage specialists and the thinking was why not make use of this area early in the season to prevent the weeds from setting seed, and giving the native pastures sufficient time to begin spring growth,” says Carter. They fenced the area to hold cattle on the flood plain before the herd heads to native range pastures early in June.
Drier growing conditions in early 2018 have many producers concerned about the hay crops, and Carters are no exception. This year, they will be seeding more of their 6000 acres of crop land to green feed, since slough areas have finally dried up with the heat and low rainfall this spring. They plan to seed oats or barley along with a greenfeed blend to take advantage of the moisture that is there.
“We never get the same weather conditions two years in a row, so we have to be nimble when we look at our feeding strategies,” says Carter, “Ranchers are always adapting, and looking for the opportunities that arise out of situations that may initially seem pretty dire.”
Jason Dick says sainfoin pastures serve as a good bridge-type forage source on his southern Alberta mixed farming operation.
With a few stands of domestic forage — including straight sainfoin as well as sainfoin mixed with crested wheat and brome grass — he can use some of it as pasture just after calving, before heading out to native summer range. And he can also use sainfoin pasture in the fall before moving into corn grazing and winter-feeding.
“I seeded my first sainfoin pastures about four years ago, “says Dick, who runs a 125 head cow-calf operation southeast of Medicine Hat in the Elkwater area. He sourced the sainfoin seed from nearby Shelby, Montana. And he says it appears to have a good fit. One field, close to the home yard, he often saves with stockpiled forage from the previous year to use in April, before moving to new grass in May. It is productive, relatively high yielding, cattle find it very palatable, and is versatile both as a hay and pasture.
Along with sainfoin seeded four years ago, he seeded another 45 acres to a newer Canadian sainfoin variety, Mountainview, developed at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge Research Centre. Released about three years ago, Moutainview was licenced to Northstar Seeds.
With both the older and newer seedings he aimed for mostly straight sainfoin stands so he could compare the performance of the different varieties of legume. For the 2017 seeding he used a blend of 10 per cent meadow brome grass and 90 per cent Mountainview sainfoin.
While he is still fairly new to sainfoin, Dick says it appears to have good longevity provided stands have the chance to mature and set seed every year or two. “I think if you just kept grazing it or haying it, and it didn’t get a chance to mature, it may not have the longevity of alfalfa,” he says. “But we try to graze it, or take a cut of hay early and then let the regrowth mature and set seed, and if it can do that a stand would probably last almost forever. It just keeps renewing itself.”
He also says while it appears to be a good legume variety, it is expensive to establish. He figures he paid about $4 per pound for seed, seeded at a rate of 30 pounds per acre. “That’s about $120 per acre, which is nearly double the cost of other seed,” says Dick. “But if you can manage it so it is able to reseed itself, then that initial cost is actually spread over many years.”
As Dick evaluates the sainfoin seedings, he sees the legume as having a versatile fit for both pasture and winterfeed. With the “straight” sainfoin pastures he’s planning to increase ground cover by interseeding with grasses, as well as about a one-half rate of alfalfa.
“Depending on the year I’ll leave the sainfoin/alfalfa stands to mature to the 50 to 60 per cent bloom stage, take a cut a hay, and then cattle will be able to graze the regrowth in the fall, or I can just leave it as stockpiled forage for the spring,” says Dick.
While all of his pastures are dryland, he does have an older straight alfalfa field under irrigation he cuts for hay. Dick sees an opportunity to interseed the hay field with about 30 per cent of sainfoin to boost the legume component of his winter feed, and reduce the risk of bloating.
As he has developed a year-round grazing system over the past 20 years on his south-central Alberta farm, Doug Wray has focused on mostly legume pastures during the spring and summer grazing season, before moving cows and backgrounded calves onto mixed forage swaths for fall and winter grazing.
Starting 20 years ago with about 1000 acres of mostly alfalfa pastures, Wray says he learned to manage cattle and pastures to reduce the risk of bloat. But in more recent years he’s also adding non-bloat legumes such as sainfoin and cicer milkvetch to pastures, on the farm near Irricana, just north of Calgary.
“This year for example, being a drier spring, the alfalfa was actually out performing the grasses in May and June so we had to be mindful of the bloat risk,” he says. That situation usually doesn’t develop until late summer when it gets drier and the deep-rooted alfalfa has more growth than the shallower-rooted grasses. On high-risk pastures, Wray adds a surfactant to livestock drinking water, which reduces the risk of a frothy bloat (gas build up) in the rumen.
And now as he adds more sainfoin and cicer milkvetch to the pasture blends, bloat risk should be further reduced. “We are firm believers in having legumes in the pasture mix,” says Wray. “You don’t want to lose any cattle, but even if you do lose one or two yearlings to bloat, if you have 150 head gaining an extra half or three-quarters of a pound per day because of the legumes in the pasture, you easily make up for any losses.”
Wray bought a Agrowplow drill so he can direct seed into established alfalfa pastures with non-bloat legumes to improve overall forage production and reduce bloat risk. “With our summer grazing program we are holding cattle in paddocks and moving every day and a half,” says Wray. “So all the nutrients in the manure and urine is going back on the field. The pastures are very productive and we haven’t fertilized in years.”
And he says renewing legume pastures is already paying off. Some of the heifers on the improved sanfoin/alfalfa pastures were gaining up to three pounds per day.
From summer pasture, cattle move into stockpiled native grass pasture from November until about mid January, before moving to swath grazing. The fall and winter swath-grazing program for cows as well as backgrounded calves is built around forage blends.
In recent years a mix of oats and triticale are the main component of the 240 acres seeded for swath grazing. “And over the past five years we have tried different forage blends to go with the oats and triticale,” says Wray. Working with seed supplier, Union Forage, the past couple years they have also added a Forage Relay blend including forage brassicas, Italian ryegrass and hairy vetch to the some of the cereals seeded for swath grazing. Of the 240 acres of swath grazing, about 105 acres intended for backgrounded calves has included the brassica forage blend. The other 135 acres for the cowherd is primarily oats and triticale with about three-quarters bushel of winter wheat added to the seed mix.
“We’ve used the same land for swath grazing for the past 15 years,” says Wray. “We are often trying something new and making adjustments partly from an agronomic point of view to reduce the risk of disease development, to increase biodiversity and also to increase forage production, and ultimately weight gain on cattle.”
Wray says on the straight cereal swaths calves were gaining about one pound per day, and by adding other forages such as turnips, brassicas and vetches, he hoped to see weight gains bumped by at least a quarter pound per day. Calves out on swath grazing this past year for example, Nov. 2017 to Jan. 2018, were registering weigh gains of 1.5 pounds “which is exactly what we were hoping to see,” says Wray.
Cows will move onto the cereal swath grazing in early January and that will carry them through to calving and new grass emerging in May. Animals are moved to a new swath section every day.
Wray says while it takes money and management to establish swath grazing, particularly with the different forage blends, the economics do pencil out. “The higher forage production you have, the better the economics,” says Wray. For example, with good moisture and high yields in the fall and winter of 2015/2016, Wray says swaths had a carrying capacity of 300-cow days/per acre for a feed cost of about 70 cents per head per day.
Conversely with drier growing conditions in 2017, yields were about one third lower, which reduced the carrying capacity of the swaths and increased feed costs to about $1 per head per day. “In a drier year feeding costs will be higher, but our feeding costs with swath grazing are still considerably lower than if we were producing hay or silage,” he says.
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