As the growing season approaches, the timing is right for planning next winter’s beef feeding program.
“The bottom line when raising beef cattle is to treat the whole farm as a pasture resource,” said Jeff Duchene, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Central Minnesota regional grazing specialist. “I want to challenge all of you to look at your current pasture management and winter feeding programs.
“Can you improve pasture production through better grazing management practices? Can you graze animals on lands that are also used for crop production? Think about how you can develop a farm management plan where the livestock and cropping systems are incorporated together.”
Duchene encourages producers to graze beef on corn, small grain and soybean stubble as low cost roughage sources. He appreciates winter pastures stockpiled with grass – or placement of bales to improve fertility. He likes cover crops of ryegrass, turnips or clover planted after wheat for cattle to graze in the fall.
In 2012, he encourages producers to document days of grazing by month and year.
“How many days of grazing does the herd average in a year? Feeding constitutes the highest production costs in a beef cow/calf operation,” he said. “So, the more days that animals can harvest their own forage, the lower the production costs.”
Successful adaptation of winter grazing practices reduces feeding costs and can improve the farm’s environment and productivity.
Beef producers can lower their expenses by using trees or windbreaks for winter shelter.
Duchene suggests that livestock can travel farther for water in the winter.
“I would let them go half a mile in the winter,” he said. “They will eat a little bit of snow. You can string a temporary fence, make a lane, and walk them back up to water.”
To maximize the use of available resources, Duchene encourages beef producers to look to the NRCS for technical and/or financial assistance.
The NRCS can offer assistance setting up year-round grazing and pasture systems including placement, fencing, water and seeding.
Programs, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, offer financial incentives to help producers set up rotational grazing systems and more.
A managed rotational grazing system allows for the greatest pasture production potential during the growing season.
Beef producers can also use some of the same techniques during the winter to improve pasture productivity.
“You can still overgraze a dormant plant, so stubble heights and good forage management principles need to be maintained over the winter,” he said.
One strategy that can improve a pasture or field includes bale placement through the winter months.
He suggests placing big round bales of hay on frozen pastures or cropland once fall rain showers have passed. With electric fencing, the cattle are given access to enough bales for the desired length of the feeding period. Turning the bale on its end allows for easier removal of twine, and it keeps the cattle from rolling the bale.
The electric fencing needs to be adequate to keep the cattle from breaking into the other bales.
Duchene says it’s okay if cattle waste some of the baled hay. The feeding area is moved throughout the pasture region to spread out the manure and fertility.
“This bale is just a big pile of fertilizer,” he said. “The cow is pretty inefficient about taking that bale and converting it to growth. Most of it comes right back out.
“What they don’t eat will eventually break down and act as a slow release fertilizer.”
In the spring, the pasture is dragged with an I-beam or harrow to break up thatch. The first growth coming through the feeding area will likely include weeds – dandelion, burdock and lambs quarters.
With adequate rest and good grazing management, perennial cool season grasses should recover and thrive in the manure-rich environment.
Duchene says the technique is not designed for native or warm season grass pastures. He also reminds producers to fence off wetlands and creeks to keep the nutrients within the soil profile.
With good moisture available early in the growing season in 2010 and 2011, the grass response has been tremendous.
In an ideal situation, a cattle producer would rotate the pastures where they feed beef cattle each winter.
“The key is to hit it and go someplace else for the next winter,” Duchene said. “If you have eight pastures, you can winter in one or two pastures, and then the next year you go to another pasture. You just pick the ones that are the lowest producing, and feed on them, taking into consideration water and shelter.”