Frozen dinners for cattle: swath grazing saves time and money

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Dr. Vern Baron at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Lacombe Research and Development Centre spends a lot of time thinking about food – namely, barley, triticale, and corn. He is studying the costs and benefits of a popular new livestock feed management system called swath grazing.

Swath grazing, a means of extending the summer grazing period of beef cattle right through the winter, is like a frozen TV dinner for cattle. Feed crops — like barley, triticale, or corn — are planted in the spring and cut in the fall. The crops are left lying in the field in swaths, where cattle are allowed to graze on them throughout the winter from November to March.

“Swath grazing is just like providing cattle with frozen TV dinners. And they don’t mind eating them outside.”

- Dr. Vern Baron, Research Scientist, Lacombe Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The cattle are accustomed to being outside in the winter and don’t have a problem digging through the snow to get at the tasty frozen meal below. The crops provide the cattle with the nutritional requirements they need, and supply the farmer with a number of economic and time-saving benefits.

What are the perks?

The traditional method of winter feeding involves baling crops, making silage, hauling feed, and cleaning out the cattle enclosures. It’s a labour-intensive system, costly to the producer in terms of time and money.

So why not extend the grazing season? The longer farmers are able to keep the cattle in the fields, the less work and expense they incur. Swath grazing reduces labour, fuel, feed and manure handling costs during the winter — which can be considerable for beef operations.

As an added bonus, the cattle fertilize the fields as they graze, automatically distributing much needed nitrogen to the soil for next year’s growing season.

Current research

Dr. Baron and other AAFC scientists are researching the costs, yields, and nutritional quality of different plant varieties to determine which swath grazing crops will give cattle producers the biggest bang for their buck. They are looking at developing new species that have shorter growing seasons, high protein, durability, and big yields. A side benefit of greater yields is that the amount of land used for winter feed may be reduced by about 50% compared to traditional methods, allowing producers to dedicate that land to other cash crops or to conservation initiatives.

What’s the big deal?

Swath grazing has been tried by 35-50% of farmers, many of whom have switched to this innovative feed management system. In terms of impact, Dr. Baron compares swath grazing to the advent of zero tillage, which revolutionized modern agriculture and is currently used by 70% of producers. In terms of economics, swath grazing has the potential to save the beef industry millions of dollars each year. “So that’s a very successful new practice for people to use,” sums up Dr. Baron.

Key benefits

  • Winter swath grazing reduces labour, fuel, feed and manure handling costs, which could save the beef industry millions of dollars each year.
  • Researchers are developing new crop varieties that will provide farmers with feed sources that produce higher, nutrient-rich yields in a shorter period of time.
  • Side benefits are a reduction in land use over traditional methods, and a return of nutrients to the fields — in terms of manure application — with no additional labour.

Photo gallery

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Dr. Vern Baron, AAFC Research Scientist, out in the fields at the Lacombe Research and Development Centre, Alberta
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Dr. Vern Baron, AAFC Research Scientist, examining corn kernels in the laboratory at the Lacombe Research and Development Centre, Alberta
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Swath grazing cattle, Lacombe Research and Development Centre, Alberta

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