Swath Grazing Annual Forages Using Zero till

By Trevor Atchinson

Producer

Pipestone, Manitoba

 

            I am a managing partner in Poplarview Stock Farm.  We run 400 head cow calf operation, 100 custom cows, custom graze 300 yearlings and annual crop 350 acres of crop on  4200 acres.  The soil is very light and sandy and we began using zero-tillage in the early 90's, as it was an excellent fit to our erosion prone soil.  Through my father’s appointment at the time to the local conservation area we had the opportunity to try new equipment.  Since our land was lighter we were able to seed earlier than other farms in the area and we were usually first to use the equipment they had rented for the year.  We purchased our own Edwards hoedrill in 1995.  We have used it successfully in both our grain and livestock operation. 

Our goal with swath grazing is to reduce our winter feed costs by extending the grazing season, reduce time and expenses of making hay or green feed.  In our operation we felt that just to extend the grazing season was not all that was involved.  We had concerns that if the loss in the amount of forage and/or forage quality was too great just being able to extend the grazing season may not be economical.  Added bonuses are leaving the manure in the field as we gain the full benefits of the urine and the low cost spreading. 

The first sight we chose was close to our normal wintering areas with natural shelter.  We have since constructed portable windbreaks to allow us more flexibility in wintering locations.  1999 was our first year for late seeded crops of corn, oats and barley mixed and straight barley for a total of 45 acres.  We had wet fall conditions but with our sandy soils it worked very well so we have continued.  We have had cattle swath grazing in -30f temps in 12-16 inches of snow for extended periods of time.  The cattle only have portable windbreaks for shelter with no bedding provided.  We have never had an animal with frostbite or lameness because of the cold and snow.  The cattle remain clean and healthy and have never refused to go out and graze.

We have had failures like 35 acres of corn that produced about 3 days of grazing for 250 dry cows in 2000.  In 2006 we grazed 65 pairs on 80 acres of millet for 3 days.  In 2002 we swath grazed millet, oats, canamaize, sorghum Sudan grass and silage corn from mid October to mid February.  The portable windbreaks have enabled us to extend the length of time we can keep the cattle in the field and rotate to fields with no natural shelter.

            The first few years we found out that cereals such as barley and oats had severely reduced production levels due to the crop burning on our light land with late seeding dates.  Cereals are seeded around mid to end of June so that maturity is not reached and the crop can be swathed just prior to frost and still be highly palatable.  Soils that are less prone to crops burning when seeded late have had excellent success with the use of cereals such as barley and oats.  Results from yield research done at the Souris Valley Irrigation Centre (SVIC) are in the table 1. 

We looked for other crops better suited to late seeding dates.  In 2001 we planted 75 acres of crown millet (proso), as it requires a 60-day growing season.  It yielded 2.25tones to the acre.  With the abundant yield we were afraid the cattle would find the crop unpalatable because of the bulk.  Wastage became a concern so about 50 acres were cut and baled.  The remaining was swathed and left for swath grazing.  The utilization of the swaths was excellent.  There was concern that there could be a severe problem the following year with volunteer seed from the crown millet.  There was some volunteer but it was minimal and we had dry conditions in early spring.  Under higher moisture conditions much of the millet would have germinated and froze off.  If a crop the following year for purposes other than feed is planned volunteer growth would pose a concern.

            In 2002 we planted Golden German Millet for the first time and have seeded it every year since.  2002 was very dry through late June and July.  The German millet was very stressed and in early August we had 2 inches of rain and the millet started to grow and did not quit.  The German millet has much more leaf material than crown which makes a denser swath to protect it from the weather, and is more palatable.  The feed value is higher than proso millet if cut before it begins to mature.

 

                Table 1

In 2001 we planted dwarf corn (canamaize) and 2 silage corn varieties early Maturing Hyland Blend silage corn and Prairie Pacific 6678.  The canamaize was sowed in mid May and was fully matured in early September.  It was swathed to save the leaves from being knocked to the ground by the wind.  As the cattle grazed it we found the kernels were fully mature so the cattle passed most of the kernels through.  Currently we seed the silage corn in late may or early June and it seems to mature enough for adequate feed value yet the kernels are crushed or ground when the cow eats the cob.  The Prairie Pacific corn is high producing corn that grew a thicker stock and fewer leaves.  The cows did not utilize as much of this variety as they did of the Hyland blend and canamaize.  The canamaize provided 178 cow days/acre at a cost of $.62 per cow per day.  We weighed the cattle in and out which showed a gain of 1.25 lbs per day.  Some of the cattle in this weigh test were cull cows and after the canamaize was finished they were moved to the Prairie Pacific silage corn.  They were shipped for slaughter after 60 days corn grazing and a week on high quality hay 85% sold as grain fed cows including 3 out of 4 heifers.

25 acres of crown millet in 2001 provided 150 cow/days per acre for a cost of $.45 per cow/day.  30 acres of Golden German millet in 2002 provided 197 cow days per acre.  About $.40 per day with a total cost of about $.57 with labour to move them every second day.  Silage corn was about $.38 per cow/day plus labour totalled about $.55 about 280 cow/days per acre.   Silage corn in 2001 cost was 61 per cow/day.  Oats that our mature cowherd grazed in 2002 had a cost of $.28per cow/day along with the oats we fed poor quality hay to stretch out the higher quality oats at a cost of $.24 per cow\day for a total of $.66 with labour and equipment to feed.  The cost of a hay based ration for our younger cows would have been more than $.90 per cow/day.  That season swath Grazing saved us close to $3000.

            When figuring the cost for swath grazing we use actual expenses divided by number of animals and days.  In some cases estimated yields are found then average daily intake is estimated and the feed has a value attached to it.  On our operation if I can do it cheaper swath grazing and waste some forage that lost material is still valuable as it adds organic matter of the soil.  The estimated yield and intake is not as important.  We have baled strips in fields to determine a yield so we know how much of the field to allow the cattle to access.

To limit the cattle’s access we use portable electric fencing.  Out tools include 3-1 geared reels, fibreglass posts, golf bag and a battery powered drill.  We had some trouble finding a drill bit that would stand up to the use.  Our sandy soil is very abrasive and was wearing the bits dull.  We welded the tip off a cement bit on to a 1/2-inch wood auger bit, which has worked very well.  When the snow is deep and hard enough to support the post I just pushed it into the snow bank to save drilling a hole.

We typically start with millet then move to the corn later in the cow’s gestation and colder months, as the feed value of the corn is higher than the millet.  Corn does have a lower protein level but the energy is much higher and adequately meets pregnant cows' requirements.  We co-operated with Westman Agriculture Diversification Organization (WADO) in 2002/2003 to keep track of the seeding and swathing dates then samples were taken through out the winter to monitor feed quality. The results of this project are in table 2. 

2002 was our most successful year of swath grazing yet.  Much of this was do to rains that came in early august and came timely after that to keep the crops green until near frost when the crop was swathed.  We like to use millet and corn to diversify our crops a little in case one or the other doesn't produce as well.  Both millet and corn seem to handle drought to a certain extent which is a major consideration in our area.  In 2004 there was a substantial frost August 20.  We had 130 acres of millet for swath grazing.  The frost killed some areas of the fields but most of the plants survived but 60% of the growth on each plant was killed and dried out.  With the warm temperatures that followed the plants continued to grow and the re-growth grew to almost the same height as the plants were before the frost.  20 days after the frost we put 95 pairs in 35 acres and returned $51 per acres gross and about $11 net.  Even in a disaster there is salvage value especially if the cattle can graze it and eliminate machinery costs to produce stored feed.  

Wildlife, weather and poor production insurance coverage are a few obstacles with swath grazing.  Weather can affect the feed value, palatability and affect the cattle while grazing.  We have had problems with waterfowl in the swaths of millet, corn and oats.  Wet weather in the fall can leave the soil wet and muddy which can lead to tramping of the swathes creating wastage.  This is not a big concern in sandy soil but producers with heavy soil have had to delay swath grazing until the ground is frozen. Deer can travel through the field and damage or knock the portable electric fence down.  This can be very destructive if there is snow and it is cold as where ever the cattle walk the snow will freeze hard and when they return are unable to get at the feed under the snow.  The depth of snow can have an impact on how well your electric fence will work and if cattle can access the feed.  If any of these conditions are encounter producers will need to have feedstuffs available.  The cattle will eat the best quality feed first if they have the run of the field so we try to limit them to 2 or 3 day supply at a time to maintain the most economical animal performance.  The aftermath has been of concern on a few occasions but only harrowing was needed to prepare the fields for seeding.  We have zero tilled in corn stubble that we grazed standing or swathed with very little problem.

Table 2

Sample

Date

Feed Tests

Oats       

 Millet (swathed)

Millet (haybine)

Hybrid Corn

Dwarf Corn

Sorghum Sudangrass

October

RFV

97

88

89

129

110

N/A

 

TDN

62

59

59

68.5

66.8

N/A

 

Crude Protein

11.2

10.9

13

8.8

9.8

N/A

November

RFV

94

81

80

133

109

89.2

 

TDN

62

58

58

70

65.7

61.4

 

Crude Protein

9.9

9.3

11.2

6.4

11.8

11.2

December

RFV

87

98

82

142

135

84

 

TDN

58

64

49

69.6

68.7

48.35

 

Crude Protein

11.1

12.2

11.9

8.6

12.1

8.5

February

RFV

GC

84

88

GC

114

90

 

TDN

GC

57

60

GC

65

66

 

Crude Protein

GC

9.4

9.9

GC

14.7

14.6

March

RFV

GC

85

81

GC

122

91

 

TDN

GC

52

52

GC

58

61

 

Crude Protein

GC

9.5

8.5

GC

10.7

17.4

 

GC = GRAZING COMPLETED

From the data in tables 1 and 2 we can conclude that swath grazing is a very viable option.  A cow in her first or second trimester of gestation would require 6.9% crude protein (CP) and 48.8% total digestible nutrients (TDN) based on NRC requirements.  However, a cow that is in the last trimester of gestation weighing 1400 lbs would require 7.6% CP and 52.5 % TDN.  Our results indicate that all of these feed types would meet the requirements for a cow throughout the entire gestation period.  As the grazing season progresses producers need to pay close attention to the cows’ body condition and feed values of the forage.  It is recommend that as the grazing season progresses; you test your feed sources to get an accurate reading of energy and protein levels. “WADO 2002 annual report.

 

"When we compare the energy and protein levels of the six feed types tested in our trials we see a trend that the grasses, oats and millet, tend to drop off in protein and energy as the season progresses.  On the other hand, the corn and sorghum maintained their original feed values and protein and energy levels.  This is to be expected because corn and sorghum are hardier plants than the grasses.  The cobs of corn would not have decreased in their feed value therefore making this an excellent source of feed for swath grazing."   WADO 2002 annual report.

 

 

References

2001 Souris Valley Irrigation center annual report 

 

2002 Westman Agriculture Diversification Organization Annual Report