Swath grazing is becoming an increasingly popular way of feeding cattle during winter months on the Northern Plains and in the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Still a new idea to most American cattlemen, it could prove useful to many.

Swath grazing is basically taking the last growth of the summer hay crop, or a small grain seeded for the purpose, and cutting it into a swath. Rather than bale it or chop it into a silo, the swaths are left lying in the field to be grazed by cattle. While some producers leave the swaths as they're cut, others rake two or more swaths together to make a larger windrow.

Because swath grazing eliminates baling and handling, research shows a cost savings of $25-$40/ton of forage grazed. It also reduces fertilizer costs because manure is deposited directly on the field. The actual amount of cost savings achieved depends on the particular ranch.

How much waste?

Many cattlemen's first reaction to the concept is to question how much waste there is to feeding cattle this way. My own experience with swath grazing this winter, as well as monitoring several clients swath grazing the past two winters, suggests waste is about 5-10% when using controlled grazing. That was with moving temporary poly-wire fences every 2-3 days to minimize waste and keep utilization high.

Hay waste in a well-managed feeding program generally runs about the same. Most research has found feeding losses with swath grazing to be less than 10%. As snow depth increases, or length of grazing period increases, losses also increase. Canadian research found that, even up to levels where 50% of the crop is wasted, swath grazing is still more cost-effective than making and feeding hay.

Labor savings at feeding time can also favor swath grazing. When feeding hay, every additional cow in the herd adds to the time required for feeding. It essentially takes twice as long to feed hay to 200 cows as 100 cows because you have to transport every bite they consume. If your feeding pastures are set up appropriately, it takes no more time to swath-graze 500 cows than 100 cows.

In my December column, “Fixed or Flexible Grazing Cells,” I outlined how to set up a flexible grazing system. We ran 1,000 ft. of polywire for each swath strip this winter and it usually took me about 40 minutes to feed 265 cows. Moving fence every other day makes the daily labor requirement only about 20 minutes/day. Lots of cattleman feeding hay can't even get their tractor started in that amount of time.

What works best?

What types of pasture or hay crops should you plan for swath grazing? While stockpiling standing forage works well for grasses like tall fescue or native-range, alfalfa hayfields rapidly lose both yield and quality with the onset of winter. Small grains planted for winter forage also deteriorate quickly with winter frosts and snows. High-quality forages offer much better nutritional opportunities for livestock classes other than dry, pregnant cows. Swathed alfalfa or small grains can be used effectively for weaned calves, replacement heifers or fall-calving cows.

The downside of the story is that swath grazing only works in certain environments. If your last cutting of hay rots in the field due to high rainfall or humidity, swath grazing won't work. The Plains region and Intermountain West offer the greatest opportunities.

The ideal situation for swath grazing is on irrigated land where the crop can be grown to the desired maturity stage and mowed to lock in the forage quality. Swath grazing a small grain crop on dry land can yield more than 100 cow-days/acre of grazing, while some swath grazing on irrigated land has been more than 300 cow-days/acre.

Stock water

Winter stock water is always a concern on the Plains and in the West. Many of the producers I work with are trying to eliminate high-cost hay feeding from their operations. Whether stockpiling forage or swath grazing, many have found one winter's cost savings from feeding less hay can pay for winter stock water development.

Winter stock water doesn't have to be as plentiful as summer stock water due to lower water demand in the winter months. If you have dry pregnant cows, letting them walk farther to water provides exercise and helps retain better muscle tone for calving. Start swath grazing close to the water source and work your strips away from water. The trips to water back and forth across the grazed areas won't hurt the fields unless conditions are muddy.

Swath grazing won't work for everyone, but for those in the right environment and looking for another way to cut winter feed costs, swath grazing deserves a look.

Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208-876-4067, jrgerrish@custertel.net, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.