Many cattle producers tired of a depressed market have switched totally to grain, but Ken Yakielashek of Sifton, Man, has done the opposite, adopting holistic management for his 300-head cow-calf operation.
The Yakielasheks rotationally graze their cattle through a series of temporary electric fenced paddocks, moving cattle 10 acres at a time, over mixed perennial forage stands.
“I have always believed in alfalfa as a good pound builder, but I was afraid to go totally alfalfa, so we purposely mixed birdsfoot trefoil with the alfalfa to act as a bloat preventative,” says Ken. “I added some timothy, orchard grass and a little bit of bromegrass to the mix. And for the first year I threw in a little bit of sweet clover to beef it up, and it is filling in more every year.”
The system provides forage so cattle can remain on some form of pasture all year round. On the home quarter Ken seeds 150 acres of corn and puts the cows on it as soon as the ground freezes. “We will graze cattle there as long as the corn lasts or until the ground turns soft,” he says, adding that they may need to supplement with a little bale grazing this winter because of a poor corn crop.
If spring comes early Ken maintains a stockpiled pasture that is left ungrazed over the previous summer and fall, to provide grazing before the other paddocks even start growing. “What I find is that on the stockpiled pasture the new growth starts coming a lot sooner because I believe the tall growth from the former year traps the heat and encourages the young shoots to start a lot sooner than on an open field,” says Ken.
PATIENCE PAYS OFF.
Although used to buying certified cereal crop seed and worrying about yield potential during his grain years, the holistic management course Ken and his wife took made them think differently about their approach to seeding pastures. “The instructor’s message was go out and buy the cheapest seed you can and it doesn’t have to be one kind,” says Ken. “If it’s mixed with other varieties don’t worry about it. It will all grow and the cattle will eat it all. The more diverse the mix, the better off we are.”
And he has also learned to be patient, especially when trying to encourage other forage species, which can be slow to establish. Cicer milkvetch, for example, has advantages as a non-bloating legume and grows vigorously, thanks to a deep and prolific root system, once it takes hold.
“I seeded a separate field with about 10 pounds of tall fescue and 10 pounds of cicer milkvetch,” says Ken. “But it was very slow in coming and I was disappointed with it, so I took a heavy set of harrows and harrowed that field and dropped in some alfalfa and red clover. But when the production still wasn’t what I expected, I manured the field and that’s when the milkvetch really came in. It took five years but it’s just been getting thicker and thicker every year.”
A little trampling through the hoof action of cattle doesn’t hurt milkvetch either, adds Ken, because it benefits from scarification of the seeds.
In 2010, thanks to a warm, dry spring the cows were munching on new growth in the pasture by April 1 and Ken estimates that 70 acres provided six weeks of grazing for about 100 cows, although he adds it’s important not to overgraze an area. Cows should be moved before they eat the grass down to the ground, allowing plants to regenerate quickly.
The pasture plan Ken has developed allows for each paddock to be rested up to 70 days, but he finds those pastures with lots of alfalfa will usually come back in 30 to 45 days. “When the alfalfa plants start blooming or the grasses start heading out we put the cows back in there,” he says.
There are times, however, when re-growth is slower, particularly with the wet conditions that have prevailed throughout the past summer. During the Manitoba Grazing Tour of the Parkland region in July, Ken showed producers a drowned patch of alfalfa that was dying off from too much water stress. He may even have to reseed some patches this year, although he hopes it won’t happen too often, in a system designed to be completely self-sustaining.
“The holistic management system we have set up is mob grazing, so if there are enough nutrients recycled the plants should increase themselves,” says Ken.
LESS WORK/BETTER RESULTS
Circle Y Farms no longer uses commercial fertilizers on the land, but instead focuses on recycling all the nutrients that pass through the cows back into the soil. “We worked for the cows for 30 years,” says Ken. “Now the cows work for us.”
Later calving, which begins in mid-April, has improved the health of the cows and calves. For the family it has meant fewer days of braving bad weather to help deliver calves. “We have much healthier calves and they don’t have scours anymore,” says Ken. “And we give them lots of room. That makes a difference too. In my opinion cattle can’t take a lot of pressure from being close together and the more space they have the better.”
To this point Ken’s best results in terms of weight gain and productivity has been on the paddocks with an alfalfa/trefoil/grass mix. As with any system, however, constant tweaking makes it better. Ken’s aim is to eventually eliminate grasses from the forage mix altogether. “I plan to try an alfalfa/trefoil/milkvetch combination,” he says. “I think it will be possible to cut the grasses out completely in favor of high-protein alfalfa that packs on the pounds.”
With the cattle at pasture all year the annual feed bill has dropped from $50,000 to about $10,000, says Ken. And with an overall healthier herd, the annual vet bills have decreased from about $30,000 to about $3,000 per year.
“When we decided to quit grain, we sold the machinery we don’t need,” says Ken. “I don’t need much equipment to grow grass, the cows are simpler to manage and it gives me a choice. I can sell calves, I can sell yearlings or I can keep my animals. It doesn’t take a great deal of money or out of pocket expenses. Yes, with all this rain, we’ve got a bad year right now, but I’m not worried. My biggest outlay of cash was $9,000 for corn seed and it looks like I am going to lose half the crop, so I am out about $4,500. I will graze the cows on the corn and although I’ll have to buy some feed, I will still recapture the nutrients and spread them around.”
Perhaps some of the greatest benefits of going to a more sustainable system have been slightly less tangible, but just as important.
“When I was growing grain and raising cattle I was working around the clock,” says Ken. “The crop had to be in on time and you weren’t finished seeding and you had to start spraying, and the cows had to be put to pasture, and I was just running faster and faster and spinning my wheels and not getting any where. Switching to grass has made life a lot simpler and more enjoyable.”