Matt and Angela Kumlin, a young farm couple near Cochrane, Alta., are making major changes to their forage management and winter feeding programs, and they’re seeing beneficial results.
They have cattle of their own and take in yearlings for custom grazing in the summer, utilizing different forages in their pasture mix. “Most of our grassland is native pasture, but we do have some tame and cultivated pastures,” Matt says. “We also grow an annual polyculture crop every year for swath grazing. The elk really liked it so we used a 3-D electric fence to keep the elk out.”
“We really like the polyculture forage blend for improving soil health,” Matt says. “Every year, the soil gets better, and seed germination is improving. We are not tilling anymore, so we’re getting more activity in soil biology.”
The Kumlins have been seeding the forage blend for swath grazing for three years and making a few adjustments to the species mix each year to get an idea of what grows best.
They are using Union Forage’s swath-grazing blend which includes three forage brassicas — Goliath forage rape, Hunter leaf turnip and Green Globe turnip. They also add different cereals or legumes — in 2020 they included oats and triticale in the swath-grazing blend, along with forage peas, millet and sunflower.
While the forage blend had variable germination results the first two years, partly due to growing conditions, Angela Kumlin believes soil quality is also improving.
“In 2020 the seeding did a lot better because we’ve been no-tilling for three years. Now, when you pick up some soil, it smells better, looks better and has more structure.”
Angela says this past year (2020) was a good example of how the soil texture has improved.
“The weather was dry toward the end of summer but our annual swath grazing field was the last to dry out, compared to surrounding grain fields. The swath field held moisture better. Having different species in the mix; those plants use moisture more effectively because they have different root depths.”
High stocking density
Matt and Angela also adjusted their grazing methods on native and tame grass pastures.
“Our ranch has always used rotational grazing but now we put more cattle together in a pasture at one time for more animal impact — that means a shorter grazing time and more grass recovery time,” Angela explains.
In spring and early summer when grass is growing fastest, the herd can go through each pasture quickly and then be moved, allowing the forages to grow right back. “Having all the cattle in one group makes it easier to manage too; we don’t have to do as much fencing and fence-moving.”
Angela and Matt own 200 cow-calf pairs and last year brought in more than 1,000 yearlings to custom graze. “The yearlings were a mix of steers and heifers that we ran together as one large group during June — our fastest grass-growing month,” she says.
“Watching those yearlings mow though a pasture was like watching a herd of locusts! They covered everything uniformly, in a short time. We split them up again in July so we could breed the heifers.”
Angela says running the high-density herd worked very well. In the past they’ve always had more small groups here and there, so combining the herd when possible made it easier, with fewer total moves. Hoof action along with having nutrients from the manure from that many animals on a pasture also helped to improve soil and pasture production.
“Wherever that herd of yearlings had been in early summer, grass quality was a lot better for the rest of the year,” she says. “The grass remained in a vegetative, growing stage. Our goal for the coming years is to get the combined herd across all our grass before July 1.”
At the end of the grazing season, the Kumlin’s own cow herd with calves moved onto stockpiled forage. The steers were sold first and then the cow herd with heifer calves moved onto swath grazing in early January.
The plan was to leave the cows and heifer calves on the swaths for most of January, then move the cows to bale grazing with some lower-quality hay and keep the heifer calves as well as bred heifers on the swaths.
“The swaths are actually really high-quality feed which is probably more than our cow herd needs at this time of year,” Angela says. “We also have some hay that’s good but not top quality, so we will bale-graze the cows on that for a few weeks.”
As the winter progresses, the cows may return to swath grazing to help clean it up before spring or they will go back onto stockpiled forage. With a 45-day breeding season for the cow herd and a 30-day breeding season for the first-calf heifers, the calving season runs from May 1 to June 15.
Angela says it has been an interesting journey to this way of raising cattle.
“I was in Cattlemen’s Young Leaders course and it was a good start for both of us to see that there are many different ways to ranch. My mentors were definitely ‘outside the box’ thinkers. They toured us around their own ranch and others and showed us different ways of doing things. We also took the Bud Williams course on cattle handling three years ago.”
They were also introduced to the ‘Soil Carbon Cowboys’ — Greg Judy and Gabe Brown on the ‘University of YouTube.’ Once a person opens the door to a broader view, there are many people to share ideas and experiences, and new paths to try, Angela says.
“The Working Cows podcast is another good learning experience. That pointed us toward the Ranching for Profit School, which we did a year ago. This was a game-changer for many reasons.”
Changing the calving season from early spring to May-June also helped.
Union Forage founder Graeme Finn is another rancher who encouraged them along the way. “He has been on the regenerative agriculture path longer and gave good advice,” Angela says. “It’s helpful to have mentors to answer questions and give guidance along the way”.
The 3-D fence
The Kumlins have adopted the concept of ‘3-D fencing’ — using two fences that run parallel to each other, creating a three-dimensional optical illusion that elk won’t cross.
Unlike typical fencing which can be jumped by elk and deer, 3D fencing incorporates differing heights, widths and depths which can be tricky for wildlife to navigate. There is a single wire three feet out and three feet high on either side of the main fence.
The three-dimensional effect prevents the wildlife from breaching the fence, mainly because of poor depth perception. The outer fence is usually a single-strand electric fence. The interior fence is usually three strand.
The Kumlins built the 3-D fence around their swath-grazing field three years ago. “Some people said we wouldn’t be able to keep the elk out the swaths, but it has actually worked quite well,” Angela Kumlin says.
One side of the swath-grazing field is along a busy road and the only time the elk will cross over or under the 3-D fence is if they are on the road and a vehicle comes along that pushes them toward a field. “The fence works well, but if we were doing it again, we would choose a location for swath grazing away from a busy road,”Angela says.
The Kumlins also electrified part of the 3-D fence. It is always energized to discourage bull elk from jumping over and cow elk from crawling under.
The swath grazing replaced having to haul winter feed out to the herd. “I figured out what it was costing us to feed cattle and also the cost to build the 3-D fence,” Angela says. “And it worked out that 16 days of swath grazing paid for the cost of the fence, so it has definitely been worthwhile.”