Cattle Nutrition & Swath Grazing
Mar 04, 2013
Different livestock have different nutritional requirements. Never is this more apparent or important as when the weather outside is frightful! Here in North/East PA we’ve been getting really wacked with heavy snow and wind over the last few weeks and it doesn’t look like we’re gonna see spring anytime soon. If it’s so cold outside that your face hurt’s and your mustache freezes within a minute of being outside, chances are it’s not very comfortable for your cattle either! While your out there feeding your herd, look them over. I mean really check them out. Do they look comfortable, are their backs arched? If so, they aren’t warm enough!
Do they have snow on their backs or are they covered with ice? Some folks think only calves need special care this time of the year. Actually every age group has nutritional requirements based off of their frame score. Not just what they rated in October, but what they look like from week to week.
Mature cows need 7 to 8 percent protein and 50 to 54 percent TDN in their diet. First Calf heifers that are nursing calves need more than 10 percent protein and 62 to 64 percent TDN to milk, rebreed, and continue to grow properly. If you feed poor hay to these nursing heifers, or even to mature cows, they may not rebreed, their calves will be weakened, and growth will be stunted. For example, a few years ago before we had a closed herd we had a 1 year old Herford steer that we bought locally when he was still a bull calf. He was obviously not properly cared for prior to our bringing him home from the auction. We had him for over 6 months and he still hadn’t grown! He was either weaned way to early or just wasn’t taken care of from day 1. Most folks would say we should have cut your losses and culled him. But he was lucky he was so cute and didn’t eat much. Don’t get me wrong, his appetite was fine, he was active and lively too, but he was just stunted. Once he was back out on lush pastures in the spring and summer he put some size on, but didn’t finish at a weight that he should have. Lesson learned. Stay away from Auctions! Going to an auction is kinda like a box of chocolates. Ya never know whatcha gonna get! That’s why for the last 3 years we’ve had a closed herd, bred by our own born on-farm bull’s.
What to grow?
Growing a forage crop for swath grazing differs little from procedures for hay production. Major objectives are to optimize yield and nutritional value of the crop and minimize losses and waste. Cereal grains have probably been used most widely for swath grazing. In general, varieties of "cereal grains" such as oats or barley with rye, ryegrass and field peas that are adapted to an area for grain production are well suited for forage production. As much care and planning should be taken to produce a forage crop for swath grazing as would be invested in crop intended for grain or hay harvest. For example, optimal planting date will strongly influence total yield. Delays in planting will result in reduction in final yield. Likewise, timely harvest will optimize both yield and forage quality. Harvesting too early will sacrifice some yield, while waiting too long will reduce nutritional value. Access to wind and weather protection in case of winter storms like what ranchers from Texas to Main have recently experienced, and dependable perimeter fencing are also necessities. Research has also shown that cows can obtain all the water they need from snow, but depending on snow to provide livestock with water is risky if ice plays a major role in your winter storms. Cattle have been shown to graze for stockpiled forages through 18" of snow if there isn’t a significant accumulation of surface ice.
Optimizing utilization of stockpiled forage windrows requires temporary fencing. In trials where feed was allocated for a week to ten days at a time, waste often exceeded 25%. In contrast, where fence is adjusted daily or every other day, waste can be limited to 5%. That sounds allot better doesn’t it?
Preparing the Forages
Preparing windrows so that they are deep, by raking several harvested strips into a single windrow, provides further advantage in efficient utilization. Cows can successfully graze windrows through a snow depth up to two feet. Again, the formation of deep/high windrows provides easier access. As I previously stated, crusted or iced snow can be an obstacle, but can be overcome by driving along the windrow. I’ve also heard of farmers that will pull their packer/harrow over the ice to break it up allowing cattle the advantage they need to get to the forages. Careful planning which maximizes the use of windrows will be rewarded at the end of the season, since residues that interfere with subsequent farming operations will be minimal.