Extended Grazing Systems
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This module explores extended grazing systems, providing tips for successful extended grazing and an overview of types of extended grazing systems.
- Extended grazing can reduce winter feeding costs by up to 48% but requires a different management system than traditional drylot feeding.
- Extended grazing has environmental and agronomic benefits that can be primarily attributed to letting the cattle spread the manure, reducing machinery use.
- All winter grazing systems require added planning and management considerations:
- Feed testing is important and feed quality must meet the nutritional requirements for the class of cattle during the intended stage of production (e.g., lactating, dry, stage of gestation).
- Dry cows can winter on snow as long as it is clean and loose, and the forage is of good quality. A backup water source must be available if snow conditions deteriorate.
- Snow as a water source is not recommended for lactating cows, newly weaned calves or cows with a low body condition score.
- Body condition must be monitored regularly. Cattle in poor condition should be removed and fed separately.
- Shelter, whether natural or man-made, should be provided to minimize the loss of body condition during adverse weather conditions.
- Controlling the amount of feed offered through the use of strip grazing or small fields provides a more uniform plane of nutrition for the cattle and improved forage utilization.
- Check the herd regularly for any health concerns.
- Always have a contingency plan in case weather conditions become unfavourable.
- Use the Extended Grazing Systems Checklist in the Toolkit to help you determine which extended grazing system best suits your operation.
Tips for Successful Extended Grazing
Extended grazing systems have a number of benefits. By extending grazing into the winter months, costs related to traditional winter feeding and the labour it requires can be significantly reduced. For example, research indicates that swath grazing can reduce total daily feeding cost per cow by 41 to 48%. This is based on a 78% reduction in yardage costs and a 25% reduction in feed costs. Extended grazing can also have environmental benefits, such as residue and manure management.
However, extended grazing in Canadian winters requires some added planning and management. Different classes of cattle have different nutritional requirements that must be managed, especially during extended grazing. One such management strategy is to divide the herd based on nutritional requirements in order to maintain body condition score and ensure that each group’s nutritional requirements are being met. By dividing the herd, those cattle with higher nutritional needs can receive either different feed or supplementation. This can be as simple as feeding higher quality bales while bale grazing to young cows and using some lower quality feed for the mature cows.
Extended grazing is a viable management option for many beef cattle operations, but it must be managed properly. There are a number of animal care considerations that must be attended to when extending the grazing season, whether your method of choice is swath grazing, bale grazing, or using stockpiled forages.
This and the following information was adapted from the Beef Cattle Research Council’s post, “Tips for Successful Extended Grazing to Reduce Winter Feeding Costs.”
- Body condition
Cattle need to enter the winter in good body condition (aim for a body condition score of 3). Winter temperatures mean that higher quality feed is necessary to keep cows in good condition, because it is very difficult to improve the condition of thin cows during when nutritional requirements are high. When limited amounts of feed are provided, dominant cows may outcompete others for the most and the best feed. This can be avoided by segregating cattle into groups (e.g., mature cows, old cows, young cows and heifers). Check body condition regularly and ensure that cattle losing too much condition are removed and fed separately.
More information on body condition scoring can be found at BodyConditionScoring.ca.
Although water requirements decrease in winter, a 1450 lb cow still consumes 10 to 15 gallons/day, depending on stage of gestation. Cattle can and will eat enough snow to meet these requirements if it is loose and clean, but snow is not an adequate water source for lactating or thin cows, or newly weaned calves. Water from another source must be provided if the snow cover is lacking, dirty, or crusted over. Frost-free stock waterers are a common choice. Although they are more expensive than dugouts or streams, they minimize the risk of drowning and are more reliable than snow, especially in areas prone to repeated freeze-thaw cycles.
- Feed testing
Feed testing will help to ensure that your winter forage will meet the nutritional needs of the cattle you’re feeding, which impacts overall cattle health, fertility and production. It is important to regularly monitor intake and body condition to ensure that all nutritional requirements are being met.
Already have feed test results? Use the Tool For Evaluating Feed Test Results to help interpret your results.
Cattle in good body condition, with a good winter hair coat, and a high-quality diet can withstand temperatures of -10oC (calves) to -25oC (cows) without ill effects. However, this changes significantly when a 35km/h breeze makes -25oC feel like -40oC. If sufficient bedding and natural shelter or a portable windbreak is not accessible, cattle will begin to lose body condition and may suffer frostbite or hypothermia, if these conditions are prolonged.
For more information on portable windbreak fences see Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Fact Sheet “Portable Windbreak Fences.”
- Control grazing
Reduce feed wastage by controlling access to the swaths or bales. If left to their own devices, cattle will always eat the highest quality feed first, which means that during colder weather and in mid to late gestation, they may have to eat the poor-quality leftovers during the times when they need good nutrition the most. These cows will require supplementation, or else they will suffer from reduced pregnancy rates in the following year due to poor body condition. Cross fencing is highly recommended to avoid this issue – when the lesser quality feed has been cleaned up, it’s time to move the fence. Strip grazing is a common type of cross fencing used for bale and swath grazing.
- Check cattle regularly
Cattle need to be checked frequently. If you are unable to check your cattle every day in the daylight, arrange with a neighbour or family member to do this for you. Ensure that the electric fence is working, and that there is enough feed and water or snow. Body condition and animal behaviour will indicate if cattle are getting enough nutrition and shelter from the weather. Any problems will be easier and less costly to fix if they are caught early.
Cutting corners to save costs can quickly lead to negative consequences for the animals and negate the financial benefits of extended grazing. If you observe livestock with serious welfare concerns, or if you need animal welfare advice, contact your provincial farm animal care organization or provincial cattle producer association. Confidential help lines are also available in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.
- Contingency plan
A ‘Plan B’ and even ‘Plan C’ is especially important when winter grazing. What will you do if the swath crusts over, or the snow melts and the field turns to mud? Ensure that you are prepared to handle anything Mother Nature throws at your cattle. It is also important to have access to a source of other feeds and supplements so animals will have an easily accessible alternative if the higher quality feed runs out sooner than expected. Examples of alternative plans can be other fields of swaths that are free of low-lying areas, stockpiled perennial pasture, feeding bales on sod or supplementing with higher quality feed when the weather is harsh.
This information was adapted from the Beef Cattle Research Council’s post, “Tips for Successful Extended Grazing to Reduce Winter Feeding Costs.”
Types of Extended Grazing Systems
There are several systems that can be used to extend the grazing season well past freeze up. Consideration should be given to available resources and management practices when choosing a system(s).
Use the Extended Grazing Systems Checklist in the Toolkit to help decide which type of extended grazing system to try. It will ask some “yes” or “no” questions that can help narrow down the extended grazing system that may best fit your operation.
In any extended grazing system, where cattle are transitioned to a new feed source that is highly digestible (i.e., bloat-risk legumes, corn, brassicas), slowly introduce the animals to the new feed source. This means moving the cattle when they are not hungry, consideration of limit fencing to reduce the amount of feed the cattle can access at any given time or providing an alternate source of fibre such as low-quality hay or straw.
Swath grazing can involve spring seeded cereals, winter annuals, annual legumes or combinations of these are cut in the fall for cattle to graze during the winter. Swathing is done late enough in the fall so that cool daytime temperatures prevent mold growth. Swaths should lay on top of the stubble and be as narrow and deep as possible.
It may be useful to limit cattle to no more than two to three days of feed as trampling and mixing of the snow and forage may result in the swath freezing so cattle cannot access it. Snow crusting and extremely deep snow can also severely decrease the availability of the forage. In some cases, it may be possible to open up the swath by driving a tractor down the swath or by removing the snow from the top of the swath. Strategic placement of fencing across swaths can help to expose the ends of the swath to make it easier for the cattle to find.
- Stockpiled perennial forage
Stockpiled perennials include pastures or hay fields that are saved for fall, winter, or early spring grazing after forage growth has stopped. Stockpiled pasture may also be referred to as deferred or dormant season grazing.
Feed testing is recommended as feed quality is variable depending on the maturity of the forage and the time of the year that it is utilized. If there is adequate quantity and quality of stockpiled forage, cattle are able to graze through 15 centimetres (6 inches) or more of soft, loose snow.
- Small grain annual cereals
Annual cereals can be grown to produce pasture in the same year that it is needed with forage available for grazing approximately six to eight weeks after seeding. Spring or winter cereals can supplement perennial pasture, increasing the overall forage supply and providing flexibility depending on timing of seeding and subsequent utilization.
- Corn grazing
Selecting a corn variety with appropriate heat units for the region, weed management and adequate fertility are important to increase the quality and yield of the crop. Corn grazing is less prone to availability issues due to weather as it stands above the snow as compared to stockpiled forage or swath grazing.
When grazing standing corn, it is important to limit the amount of feed to 2-4 days’ worth at a time. The first part of the corn plant that cattle eat is the high energy cob and too much at once can result in acidosis (grain overload). A common practice to help mitigate the risk of acidosis is to provide some low-quality hay or straw along with the corn.
- Brassica crops
Annual forage brassica crops can provide fast-growing and high yielding late fall pasture. Brassicas being used by some producers to extend the grazing season include kale, forage rape, radish, turnip, and rutabaga.
Brassicas tolerate temperatures as low as -5°C, and are generally high in protein, but low in fibre, which can negatively affect the rumen. Seeding brassicas in a mixture or providing animals with a fibre source such as low-quality hay or straw, can help reduce digestive issues. Brassicas can cause animal health concerns if not managed properly, as they tend to contain higher levels of sulphur and nitrates than other forages.
- Crop residues
Crop residues of chaff and straw from cereal, pulse and oilseed crops can also be grazed in the field. Nutritive value varies depending on the crop type, stage of maturity at harvest, efficiency of harvest equipment, and the resulting relative amount of each component. Feed testing is important, and supplementation may be necessary depending on the amount of grain in the residue.
- Bale grazing
Bale grazing is the practice of allowing livestock to graze bales on pastures and hayfields, rather than feeding intensively in confinement. Bales can be grazed where they are ejected from the baler or they can be moved to feeding fields, eliminating the need to stack and move bales to animals again in the winter. The nutrients from feed wastage and manure then benefit the pasture during the next several growing seasons. It is important to rotate bale grazing sites to avoid too much nutrient buildup in any one location. The Wintering Site Assessment and Design Tool can help you pick the best locations on your operation.
Bales are rationed out using electric fence to improve feed utilization. Many producers allocate three to five days’ worth of feed at a time, but you may need to experiment to find out what works best for your operation.
Plastic twine and netwrap should be removed prior to letting the cattle bale graze to avoid ruminal or abomasal impaction. This is most easily done before the twine or netwrap freezes to the bales. An alternative is sisal twine. Although more expensive, sisal twine breaks down naturally and does not carry the same impaction risk.
Test Your Knowledge
Information adapted from
- Extended Grazing
Beef Cattle Research Council webpage
- Beef Cattle Nutrition
Beef Cattle Research Council webpage
- A Tool For Evaluating Feed Test Results
Beef Cattle Research Council decision tool
- Have You Had Your Feed Tested?
Beef Cattle Research Council post
- Winter Feeding Cost Comparison: Hay vs Alternative Feeds
Beef Cattle Research Council post
- Winter Grazing Systems: Feed Allocations in Bale Grazing
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
- Wintering Site Assessment and Design Tool
Alberta Beef Producers PDF
- Year Round Grazing 365 Days
Agriculture Research and Extension Council of Alberta PDF
- A Quick Guide to Extended Grazing
Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Manitoba Forage Council PDF
- Beef Ration Rules of Thumb
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry PDF