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Swath Grazing Cuts Wintering Costs

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:16pm

Swath grazing in winter cuts daily feeding costs by as much as 90% for cow-calf producers Larry Wagner and Julie Williams, who ranch near Chamberlain, South Dakota. They started swath grazing 13 years ago, and today they rely on it to supply 30% to 50% of the winter feed for their herd of 230 beef cows and 70 replacement heifers.

The cost-savings comes, of course, from the reduced use of fuel and machinery needed to bale hay and handle bales. Manure hauling is eliminated as well.

"About 18 inches of snow is what our cows will plow through to eat the swaths," says Wagner, "as long as there is an exposed part of a windrow to show the cattle where the windrow is."

Their hay-feeding season -- by both swath grazing and bales -- usually runs from December through March or April. They feed cattle as much as possible by swath grazing. But during the harshest of winter weather, they move cattle to shelter and feed baled hay as needed.

For feeding in the swath, they cut three 120-acre fields of intermediate wheatgrass. They swath graze the wheatgrass fields in a three-year rotation, following one year of swath grazing with two years of baling the hay.

Rotating one year of swath grazing with two years of baling gives each field two growing seasons to recover from the small amount of grass kill occurring beneath swaths lying on the ground through summer and fall.

Swath grazing permits the uniform spreading of manure and urine across all hay-producing acres. "Since we've started swath grazing, we haven't commercially fertilized our hayfields," says Wagner. "Natural fertilization happens every third year."

He cuts the wheatgrass for swath grazing in late June and early July, as he would if he were baling the hay. Subsequent summer and fall rains may discolor the swathed hay but don't cause mold.

"Two years ago we had 17 inches of rain in the summer," says Wagner. "The swaths turned black, but the cows still ate them."

In December, Wagner tested the crude protein (CP) of the discolored swathed hay in winter and compared it with the CP of standing regrowth between the wheatgrass swaths. The regrowth tested 7% CP, while the swathed hay tested 6%.

Estimating hay yield is key to figuring the volume of winter feed the swaths can provide. To estimate field production, Wagner bales one or two swaths and figures in the regrowth.

"The regrowth accounts for a good share of the feed available in a field," he says. "Last summer, for instance, we got so much regrowth that we couldn't even see the swaths from a distance."

Wagner limits cows' access to swaths by crossfencing with an electric fence of polywire and steel rod posts. He moves the fence daily. "The longer and narrower the field, the better," he says. "It makes it easier to move the crossfence."

Grinding the ends of posts to a point permits pounding into frozen ground with a hammer. To move posts, tapping loosens them, making it easy to lift them from the ground.

Swath grazing in winter cuts daily feeding costs by as much as 90% for cow-calf producers Larry Wagner and Julie Williams, who ranch near Chamberlain, South Dakota. They started swath grazing 13 years ago, and today they rely on it to supply 30% to 50% of the winter feed for their herd of 230 beef cows and 70 replacement heifers.

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