Swath Grazing & Health
Feb 25, 2011
Nutritional requirements and Swath Grazing
Different livestock have different nutritional requirements. Never is this more apparent or important as when the weather outside is freight full! 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, chances are it’s not very comfortable for your cattle either! While your out there feeding your herd tonight or tomorrow, look them over. I mean really check them out. Do they look comfortable, do they look healthy? Is there snow on their back’s or are they covered with ice? Some folks think only calves need special care this time of the year. Actually ever 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, we have 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’ve had him now for over 6 months and he hasn’t grown at all! He still looks like he’s 5-6 months old and he’s almost a year old! He was either weaned way to early or just wasn’t taken care of from day 1. We bought him when he was approx. 6 months old back in August, and he’s now our farm’s mascot. Most folks would say cut your losses and cull him now. But he’s lucky he’s so cute and doesn’t eat much. Don’t get me wrong, his appetite is fine, he’s active and lively too, but he’s just stunted. Hopefully once he’s back out on lush pastures this spring and summer he’ll put some size on. If not he’ll be our first miniature Hereford. Lesson learned. Stay away from Auctions! Going to an auction is kinda like a box of chocolates. Ya never know whatcha gonna get!
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 protection in case of winter storms like what we’re currently experiencing in the North/East, 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 water is risky if ice play’s 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.