If you monitor the manure, you can tell whether your cattle are getting what they need or not,” says Duane Thompson, a mixed farmer from Kelliher, Sask.
When a cow leaves a soft flat “pie” behind her, that is an indication the feed she’s eating has ample protein and energy for her needs, says Thompson, who spoke recently to a group of 85 fellow producers at a cattle-nutrition workshop near Langbank, Saskatchewan.
However, if she leaves a tall mound of relatively dry matter, feed quality is probably poor; and she’ll need either better feed or a high-protein supplement. “If you have manure that has a nice pudding texture, she’s getting lots of nutrition,” he says. “But if it starts to look like horse manure, you better watch out. If you find that, you better make some changes.”
Thompson, who winter-grazes cattle on stubble and stockpiled forages, monitors the value of feed available to his cows in grazing areas in part by checking the appearance of their fresh manure. That allows him to react to changes quickly, before cattle start to lose condition.
He winters most of his cows on his own stubble fields and those rented from neighbours, who are grain growers. He even sees value in renting canola stubble for winter grazing.
“Some years canola will grow a couple of leaves at the bottom (after harvest) and cows just love that,” he explained. “It’s very high protein and they do well on it.”
On days when the maximum temperature is below -20 C, Thompson supplements grazing with silage delivered out to winter pastures. Grazing cows that don’t get extra energy to make it through very cold periods could have problems. “If you hit cold weather… you’ll take a bunch of weight off them,” he says.
When their manure indicates feed quality on a particular field is no longer adequate, Thompson moves the herd “as necessary through the winter.” But he also keeps an eye on the body condition of individual animals to make sure no one is falling behind. “On an animal welfare basis or a financial basis, I’m not afraid to take a few of them out,” he says.
By building a simple corral with temporary panels in the corner of a fence, he’s able to sort and load animals in remote grazing locations. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to do, because they’re used to being fed and they’re used to coming to you,” he said. “In under two hours you can sort through 400 cows.”
For most of the herd, though, they’ll stay on a field until their fresh manure shows signs of starting to mound up. That indicates to him it’s time to go. “That’s the most important tool I have for wintering cows,” he said. †