The following is Jeff’s discussion about extending the grazing season on the Certified Angus Beef List Serve on November 19, 2008. While not written with the intent to encompass our entire grazing system, it might be of interest to some who seek a deeper discussion of on our late fall and winter grazing practices.
11/19/08 This is in response to Mike Baker about extended grazing seasons. It is long, but I can’t effectively tell much worthwhile without some explanation. While we can not graze all winter because we are in a high elevation mountain valley where many ranchers used to feed 6 months of the year…we have made substantial moves towards more late fall and winter grazing and I plan to do more. First I do calve later than most and certainly later than most purebred operators here with a due date on the main cow herd of March 10th. If I were completely commercial I would probably make it April 10th or even later.
We transitioned the grazing practices very slowly with some type of rotational grazing starting back in the 60’s but got more serious about MIG (Management Intensive Grazing) in the early 80’s. I have started weaning earlier and then just sending the calves back to grass except the bull calves only spend about 30 days back on grass before they go to be developed to sell as Yearlings. In my case the froze down hay meadows (where we take one cutting of grass hay in July) work pretty well but lack just a tick of protein for these calves by now. I do have them on 1 lb of DDG’s (Dried Distillers Grains) but have used 1/2 lb of SBM (Soy Bean Meal) in past years. I’ll never go back to just weaning and back grounding in the pens that get sloppy, cold, and wet this time of year and require expensive hay and some very expensive grain or pellets and a lot more hand labor in my case.
I am a little harder on the replacement heifer calves than the feeder calves in terms of eating all of a paddock or supplementing the feeder calves quicker during some deeper snow because I do think it teaches the replacements to forage thru the snow a bit more and teaches them to be a cow here. If they look rough as calves they will never make it as cows here but that grazing knowledge doesn’t have any value if the feeder cattle are just destined to a feedlot anyway. People seem to talk about lower input genetics a lot when it comes to winter grazing but I think it is as much if not more a learned trait and the earlier you start the training I think the better.
Regarding weaning I probably do wean at a younger age than most of the commercial operations in this area. Some who just start feeding hay when the snow flies but still wean at 9-10 months would have to feed them as pairs for a while and some still do. I wean pretty close to 205 days as an average. It is much more efficient to feed the pairs separately than thru lactation once the calves are more than 500 lbs.
I do fertilize in the spring but all of my pasture and hay land is irrigated. With the cost of fertilizer this past year I am not sure it penciled but I hope a return to lower levels will again make it a logical choice. The areas we stockpile for late fall and winter grazing have generally not had anything on them or were last cut for hay in late July to early august. By mid September most years we don’t grow much more grass. It froze hard here the first 10 of 12 days in September this year and that is not really that unusual. I have not yet had enough guts to try swath grazing due to the amount of fall moisture we can get before frozen ground but I think some trial and error there is going to happen in the next few years and I am thinking of some kind of small grain hay that might be planted after one grazing or an early cutting of hay. I did that this year on one 20 acre experiment but did have enough dry weather to get it up as dry hay. Generally it could be too late to get harvested as dry hay here but I think then it could work as swath grazed? Just a guess at this point. Maybe next year we will try some.
What I am gambling to do this year is keep even more stockpiled grass back than we normally can get to before the snow gets too deep then get back onto some of it later on. Like any days when we might have a Chinook or otherwise open things up. updated authors note.. despite some early deep snow (up to one & half feet)in late December of 2008 we did get a good Chinook wind in early January 2009. These warm winds opened back up the grass enough to allow us to stop feeding hay as the primary feed source even after we were forced to full feed for a few days prior. We again primarily grazed all the cows and even the replacement heifer calves until about the first of Feb. 2009. It worked very well despite the earlier deep snow and bitter cold temperatures I did that last spring (2008) on some small paddocks even saving some of it to the first of April on one five acre paddock just to see how it would work. (we usually don’t go to green grass until after May 1) and it worked very well reducing greatly the amount of feed needed for those cows at least for a few days. It was probably knee high before it was snowed under too deep. It looked terrible when the snow melted and I think would have just looked plowed if we had gone into it when the snow first melted and with the ground thawed. I waited until things dried up a bit and it worked very well. I just need to expand that and make sure I balance the protein with some supplemental feeding. Last year it happened by chance as we had single digit 1 1/2 feet of snow by now in Nov. but yesterday here it was in the mid 50’s which is very unusual this late in the fall. We did get cows by eventually until around Christmas but it was tougher than most years.
I hope to get into Jan this year and have the feed stockpiled to do that or I may get more of it later in the spring if the experiment from last year will repeat itself on a larger scale.
Sure I would like to not feed hay at all but I think that might be a bit of a long shot here. However, the message that we have learned over the years is to just try things, take baby steps and see where and how far it goes. Over time we have added greatly to the number of grazing days vs harvested feed days and in particular lately even with the younger cattle. They don’t need to gain as much as in the pens to have a competitive COG during this post weaning phase and seem to be happier too.
If I can offer one bit of advice is to learn very well how to BCS cows. Write them down then go back every few weeks and BCS some cows in the group trying not to look at their number or previous score until you have scored how ever many you want to get a sample. It will give you a trend and let you know how they are doing and every year you can just push the envelope a bit more depending on your available resources and costs or value of harvested feeds. Go slow and just see how it works. I would not recommend taking a full cliff dive on year one. I also have weights on all the cows within 30 days of weaning and I can turn on the scale when I run them thru the first part of Jan for a quick scours vacc. It usually just solidifies my BCS info but does give me something solid to compare with if I need to. I expect to take off BCS from Dec. 1 to Jan 15. Also FWIW (For what it’s worth) I think Angus females in general have an auxiliary fuel tank that can and should be used. It is an advantage few breeds have and those that don’t in general need to be on a more consistent feed program (read more expensive) The ability of Angus cows to both put on and then take off fat within a production year or even between seasons was the biggest contrast in our commercial herd which was previously dominated by another breed. If you are not willing to see your cows come down in BCS or you want to brag about every production weight measure this is not a program for you. It is about producing a lb of beef as competitively as you can in your environment and on your available resources.
Regarding plant species change…Although I would like to it would be hard unless I changed irrigation methods so for now I’ll work with what I have. I do have an abundance of stock water available even in the winter so I can’t help you there. The more we divide up paddocks, move cattle, stockpile, and graze thru the snow the more we increase the number of head days on the same acres. The best part is that it is more about effort and understanding than anything else.
Jeff D. Parker
On Behalf Of Mike Baker
Sent: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 4:59 AM
Excellent response! Full of logic and common sense. We have trended in your direction and have been very pleased with the results. Wean earlier, kick the heifers back out and allow the cows to put on condition prior to deep snow. We breed heifers averaging 830# and they breed up nicely. Much better than when our heifers were fed harder and got heavier. Everything looks better going into winter. BCS 5 and 6 on the cows. We are making this work and really haven’t changed our breeding objectives while saving on feed. We are continuing to extend our grazing season mainly by managing our grazing throughout the growing season. I have never been so pleased with our cattle.
Final comment…too many people are looking for the silver bullet. Time is the only silver bullet I have found. After a minimum of 15 years in the cattle business, if cattlemen have honestly evaluated their cattle and their management, success starts to happen.
All the best,