Sam King isn’t your conventional Canadian cattle rancher. He doesn’t make hay, he doesn’t use a straw bale, and he never checks a cow during calving season. And he grows corn year after year far north of the 49th parallel. For King, it has to be simple, efficient and cost effective. Cattle aren’t worth more.
Kings farms near Manning, Alta. — 600 kilometres north of Edmonton. He operates a 245 head cow-calf herd, and crops 1,300 acres. The rest of his 4,000 acres is pasture. He grows 600 acres of canola, 600 acres of smooth brome grass and 100 acres of barley to background his calves — and an average of 60 acres per year are seeded to corn for grazing.
This is King’s 12th year of growing corn. A crop that is usually associated with Iowa or Missouri, maybe southern Alberta or Ontario; the tasseled stalks cover the rolling hills surrounding his corrals. It’s the long daylight hours of northern Canada that make it possible, together with new short season varieties — King prefers using Pioneer RR 39H83.
“The only thing cheaper than corn grazing is chaff,” Kings says. Grazing corn costs him 55cents/cow/day at a yield of seven to eight tonnes per acre dry matter. (Even the brome aftermath he feeds costs him $1/cow/day.) The initial cost of seed is high, but he doesn’t need much fertilizer, although corn is a high feeder.
“It’s a total recycler of nutrients,” King says of corn grazing. Corn can be planted on the same spot for 20 or more years. Grazing corn leaves the manure right there for the next crop. “I barely use any fertilizer, I do corn on corn on corn, manure on manure,” King says. Most years he only adds 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Grazing corn, like swath grazing, cuts down on machinery costs. There is no expensive harvest equipment, no feeding equipment — just the work of fencing. “I use rebar posts and aircraft cables for electric fencing,” he says. He fences the field he’s using, as well as, the next one in sequence, just so he has a backup. He makes a trail with the tractor through the corn and to run the fence line.
King moves the fence every two days. “First day they rip off all the cobs and leaves and next day I force them to eat all the stalks,” he says. Many recommend moving fences every five days, but he feels that’s waiting too long. The cattle would be down to chewing only stalks the last couple days and they could go down in body condition.
What about high snowfall? “The snow doesn’t seem to bother the cows at all,” King says of grazing corn. “The corn never goes down.” Last year they had 39 inches snow.
Two problems cause farmers to give up corn grazing, King believes. “They don’t keep the fields clean enough” he says. Corn is not competitive at all with weeds. “Sometimes I spray as many as three times during the growing season.” As he uses only Roundup Ready varieties, weed control with a glyphosate isn’t an issue.
The second problem is letting the cows into too much of the field at once. If they have too big an area, the cows trample more down, they don’t utilize the feed as well, and they are more difficult to move.
King supplements corn grazing with baled brome aftermath, after seed has been harvested. “I don’t make hay at all,” he says. “I can’t figure out how you can possibly stay in business tying up an acre of forage to feed a cow.” He uses a stripper header to combine the brome seed, then mows the standing stubble or stalks with a discbine and makes round bales.
The advantage of the stripper header is that the grass seed is perfectly clean; and you don’t lose any of the plant stalks and leaves for baling, as you would combining with a straight cut header or swathing. Combining with the stripper header uses much less fuel, too. “I can do 600 acres on two tanks of fuel,” King says of his JD9600 combine.
He often sells some brome bales. In good years he has more than he needs, providing an inventory of feed during a poor growing season.
“I’ve had brome up to 14 years (on the same field). You spray it the first year, but after that you never have to spray it again,” King says. “Usually I keep it in production for eight years.” King doesn’t till the field, just sprays it out with a burn down herbicide, then usually seeds canola the next year. “I haven’t done any tillage since l991.”
King doesn’t like to tie up his high yielding land with swath grazing. He tried swath grazing with millet for three years, but found that although there was lots of volume there, it was high moisture and low yield.
In the fall of 2009, King combined his barley, with plans to run cattle in the field to feed on the straw swaths and chaff.
“For the winter feeding program, we’ll put the cows on the chaff first, then move them to the corn,” says King. “That’ll take me through to February. Then I’ll feed them the brome.” Every year is a little different. He says he may have to feed a protein supplement with the brome aftermath, which itself usually has a protein content of seven to eight per cent. King has all his feed analyzed.
While visiting Australia in 2003, King learned that Australians don’t check their cows while calving. He decided to adopt this calving system too. Now he calves in May/June, using two pastures that produce enough forage to support one cow per half acre. “Calving out on an open pasture, like this, I never see any cases of scours,” he says.
He lets forage on the calving pasture regrow for the whole summer. That produces a good grass thatch that works well for calving season the following spring.
With this low maintenance, late season calving, “calving death loss is almost identical as to when cows calved in the wintertime,” King says. And, he’s quite happy not to be getting up at night anymore.
King backgrounds his calves on the farm. He weans calves in November/December before the cows go to corn grazing, as the corn is too rough for the calves to digest. The calves are fed alfalfa silage, barley grain, and a 10 per cent feedlot supplement.
The calves are weighed with his government inspected scale. At 900 pounds they’re offered for bid off the farm. Whichever feedlot gives him the best price gets the calves.
King rarely buys a new piece of equipment and doesn’t carry any insurance. He tries to stay ahead, by buying fertilizer and fuel in the fall when prices are usually better.
“Every time you spend a dollar, you have to figure out where that dollar is going to come from first,” he says. King’s innovative ideas to find that dollar are what have kept him in business as margins continue to shrink and disappear.
Marianne Stamm is a freelance farm writer from Jarvie, Alberta. Contact her by email at: [email protected]