Three tips for swath and bale grazing this winter

Match your cows and your feed, leave a ‘snowshoe’ if mud is an issue, and make those swaths wide and high

If you’re planning to swath or bale graze cattle this winter, here are three pieces of advice from Agriculture Canada research scientists Vern Baron in Lacombe and John Duynisveld in Nappan, N.S.

Match animal and forage

Successful extended grazing matches the energy requirements of the cow with the true quality of the forage and/or supplement being offered. Knowing the quality of the feed, by reviewing the results after sending samples to a lab for feed analysis, is the first and critical step to a successful winter grazing program.

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It takes 20 per cent more energy on average for cows in an extended grazing system than in a drylot system because of the extra energy they use to search for feed and to stay warm. This means cows must be in good condition to be able to face the demands of winter grazing.

Some classes of cattle are better prepared to meet these demands.

Dry cows in good body condition are the best suited while weaned calves are the least suited for winter grazing.

Both animal requirements and forage quality change over the winter months. As cows move through gestation, their nutrient requirements increase, so they may need higher-quality forage, a supplement, or to be moved to a different management system when they get closer to calving.

Dry cows in the earlier stages of pregnancy have a lower energy requirement than cows in their third trimester or lactating cows. Therefore, there is a potential window in late fall to feed lower-quality forage. However, if cows have less than ideal body condition, late fall may instead be the time to feed higher-quality forages in order to improve their condition before their energy requirements increase in second and third trimesters. Testing your feed and body condition scoring cows can help you determine which option is right for you.

Leave some biomass on the field

Be prepared for whatever Mother Nature will throw at you so harsh weather doesn’t result in cows losing body condition (and having more calving difficulties, lower calf birth weights, and a longer postpartum interval). One tip is to ensure cows have proper lice control to keep their hair coat healthy and full all winter.

During extreme cold patches, make sure they have enough high-energy feed. This may mean moving fences a little earlier and not making cattle ‘clean up’ swaths to the same extent you would expect during milder temperatures. Good access to natural or man-made windbreaks is especially important when temperatures drop or winds pick up.

In cases where mud is an issue (late frosts, when frost is coming out of the ground, or in regions with milder winter conditions), leave as much biomass on the field as possible. This acts as a ‘snowshoe,’ allowing cattle to walk on top of the mud. The extra root biomass also helps to hold soil together. Move cattle more frequently when pastures are muddy. Also consider moving them to a different extended grazing pasture that will be broken up in the spring to prevent damage to the land you continually use for grazing.

Leave big swaths

Leaving some biomass in the field improves soil organic matter, but generally speaking, the more crop that cattle utilize, the more efficient the extended grazing system.

Overall utilization in extended grazing systems is relatively high — both Baron and Duynisveld have found utilization rates of 65 to 90 per cent in their research trials, with utilization declining in deep snow.

To increase utilization when swath grazing, build large swaths around three to four feet wide and 18 inches high. These big swaths are easier for cows to access even with snow cover. Choosing a type of crop and variety that is higher yielding also helps to increase utilization.

For more details on these and other tips, see a webinar given by Baron and Duynisveld in November of last year. The webinar can be found at on the Beef Cattle Research Council website by visiting the ‘Webinars’ page and scrolling down to ‘Past BCRC Webinars’ to click on ‘Swath and Bale Grazing Strategies’ (YouTube link).

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