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Swath grazing: More than just frozen TV dinner for your overwintering cattle

The phrase in the above title to describe the practice of swath grazing was coined by none other than Dr. Vern Baron, a leading scientist on forage research at the federal government’s agricultural research centre in Lacombe.

“Swath grazing is just like providing cattle with frozen TV dinners. And they don’t mind eating them outside,” he says explaining why this practice, believed to be tested and adopted by some 30 to 50 per cent of cattle producers, can be cost effective.

Dr. Baron says the practice of swath grazing has multiple benefits, including reducing on-farm labor to 34 per cent , diesel fuel required to 25 per cent and land required to feed cows over winter by 50 per cent. These are all possible if the swath-grazed crops are high yielding and managed to their optimum. The advantage is that more cows can be managed on the same amount of land, with the same or less labor with a reduced carbon footprint.

Swath grazing is, in a sense, extending the grazing season and in doing so, saving on many expenses that might add up to a substantial total. Selecting this option for feeding overwintering cattle will save a producer from spending time, money and effort on the following operations: harvesting, hauling feed, processing and managing/hauling manure. As an added benefit, the cattle leave the manure in the field while grazing, effectively fertilizing the land without any effort on the part of the producer.

Another point to consider is that energy and fuel saved through swath grazing reduces the carbon footprint of the cow herd, perhaps as effectively as carbon sequestration. Dr. Baron’s research found that compared to traditional feeding methods, swath grazing 100 cows for 100 days saved the equivalent of 2,534 L of diesel fuel. This amounts to reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions by 67 kg of CO2 for each cow that grazes for 100 days. A carbon credit worth $12 per tonne for 300 cows at this rate would be worth $240. If the carbon credit increases to $50 per tonne, the credit would be worth $1000 for 300 cows.

But while swath grazing is profitable, it is not simple and it charges the producer with some homework to be done. In many cases, producers assume that swath grazing requires no inputs. In reality, little agronomic research has been conducted related to extended grazing per se.

One of the most important tasks for the producer is to know the characteristics of his soil.

“One of the interesting things is that producers often feel that they don’t need to use fertilizer because they are grazing, but that is not necessarily so,” Dr. Baron said in an interview, explaining that manure spread through grazing is deposited above ground and often in patterns, so a good portion of the soil is unfertilized.

“I have had many calls where yields and carrying capacities have not met expectations,” he added.

Dr. Baron says this could be due to anything from poor utilization to low yield.

“We have found that some varieties and some species are less preferred, but you have to be sure that you have enough (nutrients). If your yield target is high, you have to have an optimum combination of manure and fertilizer.

“But many producers just rely on manure, many producers use the same land over and over again for swath grazing. You will have to soil test and determine what they need for nutrients.”

He adds that grey wooded soils, in particular, need nutrient support as they are known to be low in nitrogen and in phosphorus.

Another important element of management is the choice of the crop to be seeded for swath grazing. Research conducted so far seems to favour triticale as one of the most optimal crops for swath grazing, followed by corn. However, Dr. Baron recommends the use of the highest yielding crop selected from trials in the producer’s region.

“Forage quality is important, too,” says Dr. Baron.

“Crops such as corn are expensive to grow, but they do maintain forage quality throughout the winter. Beware of anti-quality characteristics of some crops.”

Selecting crops with high yield potential may well lay the groundwork for freeing up land for other crops to be grown.

“The higher carrying capacity of triticale and corn resulted in less land required to grow crops used in winter feeding than the control and swath-grazed barley since land requirement is the reciprocal of carrying capacity,” said the authors of a study, including Dr. Baron, published in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science in May 2014.

“Triticale was more consistent than corn from year to year in this regard. The significance is that as much as 50 per cent less land may be required by cow-calf producers to produce winter feed in central Alberta. This reduces the footprint of the cow herd, leaving the remaining land to be used for another economic alternative or for conservation purposes,” the study concluded.

While everybody has a favorite crop, crop rotation is important as in any other cropping system. Crop rotation reduces the risk of crop diseases which can build up over time due to crop residues left behind. “Beware of cropping sequences from other farming operations,” cautions Dr. Baron.

“Barley leaf diseases that reduce yield can be broken by alternating barley with oats, triticale or corn. Ergot has been detected in swath-grazed barley and triticale. Brassicas are not likely resistant to and can carry prevalent canola diseases.”

Other management concerns that producers should take into consideration include:

-The location for swath grazing: Thin cows that are not strong enough to endure harsh winter weather will need more nutrition than the average overwintering animals, therefore, it is important that the grazing area should be suitable for monitoring the herd during the period of grazing;

- Availability of windbreaks, whether natural or portable, is an important factor to ensure that adverse weather will not hamper grazing for an extended period;

- Contingency plans should be made to be able to provide supplemental feed to grazing livestock in case conditions arise requiring emergency measures;

-Adequate steps need to be taken to protect the stock from wildlife intrusion;

-Availability of adequate water needs to be ensured in case snow is not enough or unsuitable as a water source.

Overall, swath grazing can reduce the winter feeding costs for cattle by up to 50 per cent, according to research conducted at the Lacombe Research Centre under Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

With beef prices fluctuating wildly over the last few years, more cattle producers might find higher efficiencies and margins in their operations through this practice.

As forage experts continue working on developing new crop varieties to generate higher yields, it is believed there may be further upside potential for cattle producers to enhance the profitability of their operations by adopting swath grazing and other extended grazing practices.

By Mustafa Eric,

Media Coordinator AFSC

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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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