Less work. Less machinery. Less expense. Sound like life from a simpler time? For many producers it's a reality today.
By stockpiling forages - either left standing or in windrows - producers are letting their beef cows harvest their own feed through the winter months.
Similar to the transition grain farmers experience with no-till farming practices, winter grazing and swath grazing are designed to be less labor intensive, reduce machinery use and create less expense.
Neither strategy is new, but they haven't been common, says Joe Brummer, Colorado State University forage specialist. The reason is primarily machinery. Many producers have the equipment, so each year they cut, bale, store and then feed hay. It's an expense that can account for 50-70% of an operation's costs, Brummer says.
With another year of continued low beef prices, producers should be looking for ways to reduce their costs. Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson says, "Producers are always talking about weather and prices, two things they can't control. Feed cost is one thing they can control."
Olson says if producers carefully examine the potential of their terrain, forage availability, forage quality and weather patterns for winter grazing, they may be able to graze their livestock through the winter to cut costs.
Working With The Environment On the Sitz Angus Ranch near Harrison, MT, and bordering the Rocky Mountains, Bob and Jim Sitz have devised a grazing plan to work with their windy, cold environment each winter.
Nearly 5,000 acres of rangeland and regrowth from stubble and hay fields are left ungrazed until early November, when the Sitz's winter grazing program begins. Eight hundred cows are wintered on the open range until late January, just prior to calving mid-February.
"What makes this system work is that we do get the wind to blow the snow off and expose the grass," says Bob Sitz.
Older cows graze the rougher foothill country, while heifers and second calvers are wintered on the higher quality stubble and hay fields at lower elevations. Sorting the cattle to be better suited to the environment is an important part of the program, Sitz says.
"The heifers and second calvers need higher quality forage."
The goal of their grazing program is to get the cows to graze as much as possible. Sitz believes that is accomplished by keeping the cattle dispersed.
Prior to implementing their winter grazing program in 1992, several springs, tanks and pipelines were developed to help keep the cattle distributed.
They've also changed their supplement. "We've learned if you bunch the cows up and gather them, they won't graze as much," says Sitz. So instead of feeding cake, a liquid supplement is offered free choice. "We wanted to change the mentality of the cow and keep them grazing as much as possible."
Supplements are fed according to the weather. Typically only dry mineral is offered early on. Then, when the weather turns colder, 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. of liquid supplement is offered free choice per cow. (At a cost of 26cents/per cow/per day). Hay - about six bales for 300 cows - is fed every third day as calving approaches.
Hay and the liquid supplement tanks are also moved to different parts of the pasture to help distribute grazing pressure. Using this method, Sitz estimates the cows remove 70-80% of the forage growth across the pasture.
Further south along the Rockies, Gunnison, CO, producer Bill Trampe is utilizing his environment by swath grazing. Trampe first heard of swath grazing over 15 years ago but thought the practice wouldn't work in his country because there was too much snow.
He began to change his mind when he learned about producers in Canada swath grazing annual forages with 1-2 ft. of snow cover. Then, a couple years ago, a rainy summer - poor for making hay - presented him with an opportunity to try swath grazing. "We weren't able to make hay, so in mid-September we swathed the grass-legume mix and left it in windrows."
That winter, his 1,000 commercial cows grazed windrows for the first time and Trampe was pleased with the results. Now, Trampe includes swath grazing in his forage plan every year. "Our goal is to get through December without having to feed hay."
Trampe says he hasn't quantified his savings, but figures if he has to feed hay for four months instead of five, he's cut costs by one-fifth. Stockpile Vs. Swath
While both winter grazing and swath grazing can cut feed costs, they do have some differences to consider. Winter grazing is often suited to native range that typically wouldn't be hayed. Swath grazing may be better suited to areas with more snow, Brummer says.
"Cattle won't paw through a lot of snow to find standing forage, but that changes when forage is condensed into windrows."
Cutting the forage also maintains the forage quality, says Brummer. Crude protein content of windrows is typically 8.5 to 11% which is comparable to baled hay. "Some producers ask 'Why not just let it stand?' But, if it was left standing it would keep maturing and not maintain its quality," he says.
Regrowth underneath the windrows also provides excellent forage quality. A Nebraska study found that newly weaned calves grazing windrows gained 1.17 lbs./day compared to calves fed baled hay that gained 0.85 lbs./day. The extra pounds were attributed to a forage boost from stubble regrowth that stays green under the windrow, says Brummer.
Trampe uses the two methods in a complementary system. He winter grazes native range until excess snow arrives, and then moves his cows closer to home to graze windrows.
Another advantage of winter grazing can be on riparian areas. Since soils are frozen, streambank damage isn't an issue, says Olson. Because of the minimal impact, Olson says some Bureau of Land Management lands are now grazed in the winter instead of the summer.
And, both systems can help rejuvenate pastures. Sitz says since his pastures aren't grazed until Nov. 1 they are allowed to reseed themselves, and the cattle trampling the soil also improves range condition.
A Purebred breeder, Sitz says their winter grazing strategy also gives good indications of genetics. "Being wintered this way, you can see trends of bulls that sire cattle that are less efficient."
Don't Sell The Baler Swath grazing and winter grazing can work in many situations, but it's still a good idea to have a reserve of hay on hand.
More than 2 ft. of snow can make winter grazing or windrow grazing difficult. "Cattle usually find the windrows themselves. Unless the snow crusts, then it may need to be uncovered, " says Brummer.
Therefore, both grazing systems may require some supplements depending on the scenario. "Producers really need to look at their environments," says Montana State's Olson. "Look closely at the forage base and adjust protein to it."
He recommends that cows winter grazing on native range be fed protein cake or supplement three days a week, mainly to enable the rumen to breakdown low quality range grass. One month before calving animals should be fed hay to ensure they are in adequate body condition for calving.
Elk and other wildlife eating the forage can be another concern. Therefore, having hay supplies on hand can help prevent a shortage, suggests Brummer.
"This isn't a whole ranch system. It's a piece of the puzzle," he says.
"Producers' main concern is they think swath grazing is wasteful and it takes away the option of selling bales or holding over hay supplies."
Developing a forage system that includes some baled forages and utilizes windrows or winter grazing can still keep feed costs down without too much risk, adds Brummer.
Both winter grazing and swath grazing take some planning that starts well before the first snow flies.
U "Producers need to plan in the spring if they're going to winter graze, so those pastures can be set aside and not grazed until winter," says Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson.
An alternative for someone already using all of their land may be to lease ungrazed land from a neighbor for winter grazing, he adds.
U Spring is also the time to be making decisions for swath grazing, says Brummer. Windrows should be cut mid-September or later, when the nights become cool enough to prevent mold growth.
That means producers may need to graze in the spring to set forage maturity back for September. Or, if annual forages are being used, they should be planted so the crop is mature mid-September.
U Once the windrows are cut, they should be immediately raked into larger windrows while wet. This prevents wind from scattering the hay. Brummer says side-delivery type rakes work well because they "rope" the wet hay together. If hay yield is light (1 to 1 1/2 tons/acre), it may be necessary to rake more than two windrows together.
A bigger pile also protrudes through the snow better and is easier for cows to find, says Brummer. But if windrows get too big, cattle are more likely to bed on them, he adds.
The objective is to form a narrow (less than 4-ft. wide) windrow that has the density to keep the majority of the hay off the ground. Hay that comes into direct contact with the ground will decay more quickly and is also harder for animals to completely consume. Cutting at a higher level will leave stubble that can support the windrow and help keep hay off the ground.
U Portable electric fencing can be useful to control the amount of forage cows have access to each day, and prevents them from bedding on the windrows.
"For highest efficiency, I suggest moving the fence daily," says Brummer. "If you can live with a little loss, do it every other day."
Another tip: If the windrows are in an area that has snow cover through the winter, Brummer suggests orientation of the fence should be perpendicular to the windrow. This way, the end of each windrow will be exposed and accessible to grazing each time the fence is moved. As long as some hay is exposed, animals have no trouble rooting through snow to uncover more, says Brummer.
While grazing native range can help lower costs of wintering livestock, it can also expose animals to extreme cold and wind.
Naturally, you may want to provide windbreaks for shelter. But Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson says you may want to reconsider.
"In the Dakotas, windbreaks and shelter are needed," says Olson, "because the continental winds can be cold and windy at the same time." However, on foothill winter range, such as that in Montana, Olson has found that windbreaks have been only marginally helpful at reducing stress.
That is because of a difference in the weather. On cold days in the foothills there isn't much wind, but on warm days it's very windy, says Olson.
Knowing that, Olson launched a research project to determine if windbreaks minimize stress on cattle grazing foothill winter range. Using eight pastures (four with windbreaks and four without) and four animals in each pasture, Olson and other Montana researchers have been observing animals' use of windbreaks.
During the first two winters, mature cows were used in the study. Surprisingly, the cows didn't use the windbreaks on the warm, windy days. Instead, the way a cow positions her body toward the wind and sunlight was more of a factor in tolerating winter conditions than windbreaks, says Olson.
"The cows are minimizing heat loss by orienting themselves with the wind or maximizing heat gain by orienting themselves perpendicular to the sun," says Olson.
Overall, researchers found the lack of windbreaks had little negative effect on animal performance. In summary:
* Animals provided with no windbreak had more backfat, according to ultrasound scans. (A Nebraska feedlot study had similar findings, according to Olson.) "Without a windbreak, animals were more efficient by putting on more fat to insulate themselves," says Olson.
* Among both groups there were no significant differences in weight. "Animals in moderate body condition entering winter can lose 10 percent of body weight and still have a healthy calf, if they have adequate nutrition the month prior to calving," says Olson.
* Immune response was stronger for cows that had windbreaks, but it was not statistically significant. Blood metabolites were also tracked and no major stress indicators were noted.
Overall, Olson says, "We're seeing that cows are pretty hardy animals. We often project our human needs on to animals, but they are animals nonetheless, and have various ways of mitigating stress."
In this, the third year of the study, young cows with less foraging experience are being observed to see if there are any differences in their use of windbreaks compared to experienced, mature cows. Results from those observations will be analyzed this spring.