What works for beef producers? The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) has asked a few Canadian beef producers about changes, production practices or new technology they’ve made or use that make a difference in their day-to-day management.
Good ideas can range from improving pasture watering systems and regularly testing winter feeds, to reducing costs during the fall/winter grazing period, to simple ideas that reduce the stress of calving out heifers, to more sweeping approaches on how to manage an intensive grazing system — all have a common objective to improve beef herd performance in sustainable farming systems, says the BCRC.
Here are a few ideas from a couple of Prairie beef producers that have helped them produce more pounds of beef, reduce workload, improve overall efficiency and benefit cattle and the environment. And for more good information visit the BCRC website.
Water and forage quality
On the Wowk ranch in northeastern Alberta, several relatively minor-to-medium changes in production practices add up to make considerable improvements in overall beef herd performance.
Changes in the pasture watering system, forage stand improvements and providing a balanced ration during winter feeding are some of the fine-tuning details Miles Work says they’ve addressed on the family-run Wowk Ranch Ltd. operation at Beauvallon, about half-way between Vegreville and St. Paul. The Wowks run a 300 head cow-calf operation along with about 80 head of horses.
As they follow a rotational grazing system on about 4,000 acres of pasture, one improvement in recent years has been to provide cattle with water through solar-powered, off-site water systems.
“For many years cattle watered directly out of dugouts and sloughs,” Wowk says. “But in the last few years we’ve converted to solar-powered pumps that deliver water to troughs. Having clean, fresh water available to both cows and calves has made a huge difference in performance.”
Both the cows and calves prefer clean water, he says. Cows drink more, which he believes translates into more milk production. And more milk means improved rates of gain on calves. The calves also drink more water, which improves their growth as well. The portable solar-powered systems are moved from pasture to pasture as cattle move through their grazing rotation.
Wowk manages pastures to maintain a high legume content in a grass/legume forage blend. He’s developed a relatively low-cost ongoing system to renew alfalfa stands.
“About six years ago we started top-dressing pastures with alfalfa seed and fertilizer and it’s made a tremendous difference in forage production,” he says.
Grazing land on the ranch is divided into pastures. Wowk treats about one-third of each pasture with the seed/fertilizer blend on a rotating basis. For example, on a 160-acre pasture he will treat about 50 acres in early spring with a broadcast application that includes about five to seven pounds of alfalfa seed along with about 40 pounds of actual N. He won’t be back to fertilize that same pasture for two years and then will treat a different 50-acre block. “We usually time the treatment for April when the snow is gone and yet there is good moisture in the soil surface,” he says. The 50-acre block is harrowed after the treatment. He’s applying the treatment on some part of the ranch every year.
“Some advisors told us we were wasting our time applying the fertilizer with alfalfa seed, but it makes a tremendous difference,” Wowk says. “I estimate the treatment is producing at least 20 per cent more forage with an excellent stand and excellent growth on the alfalfa.”
Improving the quantity and quality of both water and forages is an important part in improving overall herd performance and efficiency, Wowk says. Part of that efficiency has also been a change in the beef herd breeding program in recent years focusing on more moderate-size Angus breed genetics rather than Simmental genetics. “We have decreased the size of the cows in our herd but kept our weaning weights the same. The size of our cows has dropped by around 30 per cent so that is our gain in our calf crop — 10-15 per cent because of fresh water and 15-20 per cent due to improved pasture.”
To keep pastures productive, Wowk also takes every opportunity to concentrate cattle on poorer ground to increase manure distribution during the grazing season or winter feeding. He says the effort is paying off in more productive soils and forage stands.
A dry year like 2018, where they saw about five inches of rain over the growing season, is a good example. “As soil health improves we are seeing improved moisture retention in the soil,” Work says. “This past season, we were able to pasture the same number of cattle over the same land with very productive forage stands even though we had about one-third of the annual rain- fall. The soil is holding more water.”
The winter feeding program is a combination of swath grazing on either silage barley or oat swaths, followed by a midwinter feeding program that includes cereal straw, rolled barley and a mineral supplement. Wowk has all feed tested every fall, and then working with a nutritionist, he provides mineral supplement that along with key vitamins and minerals also includes about 10 per cent urea and Bovatec medicated premix. The mineral combination is fed at a rate of 100 grams per head per day.
“With the combination of feed testing and working with a nutritionist we are always feeding a balanced ration,” Wowk says. “Cattle do extremely well on relatively low-cost feed. As temperatures change over winter, we can adjust the rolled barley component of the ration up or down to meet energy requirements.”
Forage management in Manitoba
A different approach to pasture management that’s been evolving on Larry Wegner’s ranch in southern Manitoba for more than a decade has allowed him to double carrying capacity on the same land base, has improved soil health and encouraged plant diversity with no added inputs. As far he knows he’s not done yet.
Wegner, who farms with family members at Virden in southwest Manitoba near the Saskatchewan border, adopted what’s known as an adaptive pasture management system on his cow-calf and yearling operation about 11 years ago.
The 800-acre farm is divided into 22 paddocks ranging in size from 15 to 80 acres. Grazing season runs from early April, with cattle turned out onto stockpiled forage (new grass coming underneath) around April 10, and runs until early December. Under his previous more extensive grazing system, the ranch supported about 100 head of cow-calf pairs for the season. In 2018 he grazed the same area with 250 cow-calf pairs, in a flexible grazing system that still left 50 per cent of the forage in the pasture.
“I’m not sure if we’ve reached the maximum yet or not,” says Wegner. “I’m still learning. I believe there is still some upside to be had, but it is obvious with proper management the land has become more productive.”
The “adaptive” management aspect of the system is that he moves cattle as the forage dictates — be adaptive, be flexible. “When I move cattle depends on the growing conditions, the number of cattle, and the size of pasture,” Wegner says. “But my general guideline is to move when cattle have removed 50 per cent of forage and not come back to that same paddock for at least 60 days, allowing time for regrowth. So with all factors considered I might move cattle three times a day or I might move once every three days.”
Depending on the growing season and circumstance he might move cattle when they’ve only removed 30 per cent of forage and the odd time they may stay longer to remove 75 per cent of forage. “The important part is to leave sufficient recovery time for forages to regrow before you graze it again,” Wegner says.
More plant diversity
Plant diversity is one of the indicators that the system is working. About half of the Wegner farm was at one time mostly tame grass species and about half was native range. But over the years of following the grazing system he has seen plant species numbers increase and spread. “The last inventory that was done there was 98 different species of native forages growing on pastures along with some of the tame grass species,” he says. He hasn’t renewed any pastures with seeding or fertilizer. Pastures are managed to periodically mature and set enough seed to re-establish themselves. He has also seen that cattle will distribute the seed of some tame species like birdsfoot trefoil in their manure to new areas of the farm where the species wasn’t seen before.
“Plant diversity is the key and with a rest/rotation system the plants can set seed to repopulate themselves and also develop root systems to open up the soil,” Wegner says. With root systems and earthworm activity in the soil he’s seen a dramatic improvement in water infiltration capacity — an inch of rain, for example, will disappear into the soil in less than a minute. “The water-holding capacity of the soil has increased so even during a dry period there is still moisture available to keep the grass growing,” Wegner says.
With cattle on pasture until December, he plans on a 120-day winter-feeding period. He uses a bale-grazing system, placing hay out on pasture so all manure stays in the pasture.
“When I tell people I sometimes move cattle three times a day, their first reaction is that it is a lot of work,” he says. “But in reality once cattle are used to being moved it takes about 15 minutes to open the gate and really they move themselves. And at the same time it gives me a chance to look at the cattle to see how they are doing.”