Ben Stewart believes in using a diverse mix of annual, biannual and perennial forages in his summer pasture and winter feeding program to improve rates of gain on his cattle, reduce winter feeding costs and improve soil health.
The fact that he also works with a company that sells forage seed might make him a bit biased. But aside from being a representative of Union Forage, with his full-time hat on as manager of Prairie Land and Cattle Co. near Hardisty, Alta., Stewart’s primary focus is on managing about 16,000 acres of mostly pasture with some cropland to support a commercial beef herd of about 3,500 head. Within that he’s also building a free-range, grass-finished beef program. It is an integrated farming system that along with perennial pastures includes about 2,000 acres of feed crops and 2,000 acres of annual cereal crops in rotation to support the livestock operation.
Right now he is grass-finishing about 400 head at 23 months of age. His goal is to fine-tune that program through good beef genetics and improved forage quality to grass-finish cattle at 18 months. There’s a lot going on at the ranch on the northeast edge of central Alberta, which most years can keep all cattle grazing for 365 days.
While Stewart is glad to talk to producers about forage seed varieties and blends available from Union Forage that might be suitable for their beef operation, he’s also curious to work with different species on his own farm to determine what’s practical, productive, will put pounds on beef and be profitable.
The pastures at Prairie Land and Cattle were recently the backdrop for a Union Forage tour of about 200 producers, where Stewart was among speakers explaining how multi-species forage blends can be used in a program geared to produce quality year-round grazing. All pastures, including winter feeding sites, are managed under rotational grazing and/or limit feeding with a hotwire to optimize forage use.
These forage blends (straight annuals or combinations of biannuals and perennials) can be a mix of a dozen or more species. The forage blends have a fit on several fronts. They can be spring seeded and serve as productive high-quality forage during the growing season, or seeded in midsummer to provide just fall and winter grazing. Some are suited to also being cut for silage, or swathed for winter grazing.
Most forage blends are a combination of both warm- and cool-season forage species such as legumes, grasses and several broadleaf varieties that are part of the brassica family. The plan is to use a blend so that in an average or decent growing season everything should grow pretty well, but if moisture trends toward hot and dry or cool and wet, at least some part of the blend should grow well. But blends aren’t bulletproof says Stewart.
“This year for example we’ve only had six inches of rain during the growing season. So pasture conditions can get pretty bleak.” His area had about two inches near the start of the growing season and another four inches in July so all pastures suffered. Fortunately despite dry conditions some of the deep-rooted perennials and annuals did surprisingly well.
Think of plant diversity
Keeping in mind that plant diversity is important not only in producing forage but also for benefiting soil health, most of Stewart’s spring and summer pastures are a blend or perennials and annuals. That mix can include tall fescue, legumes such as alfalfa, sainfoin, vetches and clovers along with ryegrass and herbs such as plantain and chicory. Alfalfa is an important component on these pastures for several reasons. It is a high-yielding, high-quality forage that puts pounds of beef on cattle (two-plus pounds per day) which is particularly important as he aims to grass-finish cattle. Alfalfa also adds nitrogen to the soil and deep-rooted varieties can reach for the moisture helping to maintain feed supply even under drier conditions.
He also seeds some areas to blends of annual forages which are fall seeded and used for early-season grazing, or depending on the year also cut for silage. The cereal component can include winter wheat, hybrid fall rye and winter triticale. Other species in the mix can include sweet clover, hairy vetch, Italian ryegrass, spring triticale and chicory.
Another annual blend that can grow well that Stewart has used for pasture or swath grazing is seeded in mid-July often following triticale that has been grazed or cut for silage. “It’s not only to produce forage, but for soil health it is important to keep something growing as long as possible,” says Stewart. Deep-rooted varieties, for example, help to open up the soil and of course the root systems add to soil organic mater. Forage brassicas are important as they can be very productive, very palatable for cattle and have feed value almost as good as alfalfa. That annual mix can include Goliath, a forage rape; Graza, a drought-tolerant forage radish; a Union Forage Sod Buster turnip, sweet clover, Italian rye grass, millet and oats.
Other fields can be seeded to a combination of annual and biannual forage varieties that he can use for winter swath grazing in the year of establishment, with the biannual species coming back the next year to be used for silage or grazing.
A typical two-year blend can include annuals such as Goliath forage rape, Winfred — a forage brassica that is a cross between kale and turnip, turnips, forage oats and spring triticale. Biannual species used in this mix can include winter triticale, sweet clover, hairy vetch, Italian ryegrass and chicory.
“It is important to have the species diversity and aim to keep something green and growing the whole season,” says Stewart. “Whether it is a wet or dry year something should be growing.”