Ian Murray’s first experience with grazing corn may not be a roaring success, but the south central Alberta beef producer says even this so-so crop, on a more average or better year, has a good fit in developing a year-round grazing program.
Murray, who along with his family, operates Shoestring Ranches, near Acme, about an hour north of Calgary, grew about 15 acres of Pickseed forage corn varieties this year. The varieties (numbered 2230 and 2501) have a 2,100 and 2,200 heat unit rating, which makes them practical for Alberta growing conditions, but the best this abnormal cool, wet growing season could muster was 1,400 heat units.
“These varieties didn’t reach their potential this year, but even so the amount of standing crop that is there (estimated eight tons per acre) will provide a decent amount of grazing this winter,” says Murray, who runs a 200 head cow-calf operation. “In a more average year the corn should have a bit more height, but the big thing is bigger, fuller cobs.”
Murray is putting a perimeter electric fence around the corn plot this fall and then will cross fence it with hot wires, dividing it roughly into seven, two-acre paddocks. Early in 2011 he’ll turn about 160 head of cows into these paddocks. He’s expecting to get about a month of grazing off the corn.
Not including land value, the straight input cost of the corn was about $173 per acre (seed/fertitlizer/ chemical). He compared that to 125 acres of oats and barley seeded for swath grazing that cost between $110 to $125 per acre (depending on the amount of fertilizer).
The corn, he estimates will provide about 350 cow/days per acre of grazing, while the oat/barley swaths will provide 225 to 250 cow/days per acre. (It was an exceptional year for the cereal crop, so 200 cow/days may be more average).
“We’ll have to see how it works out over the winter, but even getting 350 cow/days per acre appears to be a good investment,” says Murray. “We estimate in a more average growing season the corn should produce 400 to 450 and maybe even 500 cow/calf days per acre. I don’t think I would want to seed 120 acres of corn, but having 15 or 20 acres will make it a valuable part of the grazing program.”
Murray, who last year had to “feed” cattle for a few weeks prior to calving, says he is able to get well over 300 days of grazing from his 1,600 acres of mostly tame (some native mix) pasture.
After the herd calves, he begins in May and early June with the cow-calf pairs on stockpiled pasture held over from the previous year. Then as the spring and summer progresses, he moves the herd through a rotational grazing system, using electric fencing, getting the herd onto new grass every couple days. The herd goes through the same rotation twice during the grazing season.
As Murray retains ownership of calves for direct marketing, the cow-calf pairs move onto swath grazing in early November and that carries them through at least until January of the coming year. This winter he plans to put the cows on corn grazing in February, while the calves will be weaned and put on a backgrounding ration.
“Last year was a drier growing season, so we didn’t have the same production of the cereal crop for swath grazing,” he says. “We had to supplement the swath grazing with straw, but the cattle came through the winter in excellent condition. This year, we may even have more swath grazing than we need, so when I wean the calves, I will put the cows on the corn and might put the calves back on the oat/barley swaths.”
Murray markets a portion of his calves through the Prairie Heritage Beef program, which is a private all-natural branded beef program, and the rest are marketed through his own Shoestring Ranch natural Angus beef program. The Shoestring Ranch beef products are sold at a local farmers market, and he also supplies a client base with home delivery and direct farm sales.
Murray seeded the corn May 12 with a rented Archer corn planter, set on 30 inch row spacing, which places the seed with four to six inch spacing in the row. He applied about 100 pounds each of nitrogen and phosphorous, according to soil test recommendation, at time of seeding.
The Roundup Ready corn varieties should have two applications of herbicide during the growing season. Due to the wet conditions, Murray was only able to make one early application, which left this non-competitive crop in a weedy condition this fall.
Kevin Shaw, Pickseed representative for central Alberta and west central Saskatchewan, says the time of seeding was ideal, as corn prefers to be seeded into warm soils that are at least 10 C to 12 C. And he says in a normal year, under more favorable conditions, the corn should be treated with glyphosate twice. “When you are heading out to spray your canola, that would be the time to make a pass over the corn as well,” he says.
Shaw favors the use of a corn planter to get proper spacing not just between rows but also between seeds in the row. A conventional air seeding system can provide the row spacing, but those systems have a hard time with proper seed placement (spacing) in the row.
While the 6′ to 7′ tall cornfield at Murray’s farm, should have produced a bit more height during a more average growing season, Shaw says the more important feature is bigger cobs. Each corn plant produces one, and sometimes two cobs, but in a corn crop it is the cobs that produce about 46 per cent of the total biomass weight in the field. The Murray crop was hit by frost while cobs where in the milky stage, and ideally growth should have been stopped when kernels were at the dough stage. On the other end of things, if the kernels are too mature and dry, many just pass right through the animal’s digestive system.
Shaw says while cows will go for the cobs first there is plenty of nutrient value (sugars) in the stalk. In a grazing situation you don’t want to leave the cows too long, but at the same time they have to be held in an area long enough to clean up everything, before being moved.
LeeHartiseditorofCattleman’sCornerbased inCalgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]