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Cows and ducks work well together

Producer applies his rotational grazing system to conservation pastures

Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and Rapid City, Manitoba area cattle producer Gerald Bos are working collaboratively on a project that’s a win-win situation for both by benefitting nesting waterfowl and Bos’s beef herd.

The project revolves around ‘The Smith purchase’ — a half section of land that DUC bought in 1994, which happens to be right across the road from some of Bos’s pastures. Once DUC staff saw how Bos was managing his own grazing system, and the excellent forage he was producing for his cattle, they asked if he would work with them and apply the same system of high stock-density grazing, using his cattle, on the DUC property.

“We have not previously had the opportunity to work with a producer who manages grazing the way Gerald does,” says DUC biologist Robin Hamilton. “This half section has not been grazed since 2010. Before that it was divided into two quarter sections, with one grazed one year and one grazed the next next year. We weren’t getting the results we wanted from that system.”

The Smith land, which was first seeded to grass in 1996, has a mix of warm- and cool-season grasses. “From a conservation perspective we want to have as much grass cover as possible throughout the season and have as much plant diversity as possible,” says Hamilton, noting the goal is to emulate the effects of buffalo grazing and wildfires that would have been the natural grassland management system that existed on the Prairies before the land was cultivated.

Ideal nesting habitat

Maintaining healthy grass stands provides vertical and horizontal concealment for nesting waterfowl that are quite at home with grazing cows. Nesting birds don’t see grazers as predators. The cows graze without disturbing bird nests. For waterfowl to start a nest they ideally need duff or residue on the ground to a depth of around six to eight centimetres, which is also optimal to provide the organic matter necessary to maintain soil health and keep growing grass healthy.

Under previous management of the Smith pasture, the duff built up to the point where grass seedlings could not germinate through it, and weed species were beginning to dominate the pasture.

Bos has introduced his grazing system of small paddocks to the Smith pasture. Paddocks are grazed for a short time at fairly high stock densities, followed by a long rest period to allow for grass regrowth. Bos has used this system for more than a decade on his own pastures with super results.

After the first year of using the system on the Smith pasture, Bos says he likes the way the cows — 300 cow-calf pairs and 125 yearlings — have grazed the unfamiliar paddocks. Bos told producers during a 2016 DUC summer field tour that he was pleased to see no bare ground in the grazed paddocks.

“The goal is to have no bare ground and to have lots of plant density,” says Bos. “The cattle had grazed half to two-thirds of the plants and they’ve touched every part of the field. The system leaves good residual litter on the ground, which keeps the soil cool and moist and provides food for the soil biology to stimulate rapid re-growth.

“The cattle have had a bite from just about every plant because in a short graze period they don’t have time to be selective, so they get what they can.” The cattle also provide beneficial animal impact — hoof action on the soil — and the nutrients from the manure are maintained on the land.”

Bos says working with the DUC land fits nicely into his own pasture rotation. It has provided him with some extra pasture, and most importantly, allows his own pastures to have a longer rest period, which increases productivity and ultimately, profitability. “It gives us more management options,” he says. “It’s certainly has been a successful partnership from our point of view.”

““We don’t often get an opportunity to have 450 head of cattle come in and simulate what we want to do,” says DUC’s Robin Hamilton. “This grazing management system is a new concept for us and we are confident that the response will be great.”

About the author

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Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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