Grazing Hay Fields with Cattle

July 11, 2016

 

 

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I’ve always made dry hay for my cattle and swine for winter feed.  I make big, round bales when it seems the weather will cooperate.  In this part of the country though, when it’s “hay-makin’ weather,” as the old-timers would say, it’s past the best quality point of the hay.

Based on the maturity of the grass, late May to early June would be the best time to make hay.  But we seem to get rains every few days until late June or July when the hay would be way over mature.  One solution many farmers in this area use is to make haylage or balage, the former is silage made from hay, and the latter is hay baled wet and wrapped in plastic.  I’ve never wanted to deal with all the plastic and also prefer to not transport and move and feed all that extra water.  But, I’ve struggled in the past, getting hay rained on, making hay that is too wet and having it ruined, making hay when it’s too mature, etc.

Last year I made a lot of hay that was too mature.  My cattle are used to eating very high quality forage in the grazing months and they don’t want to eat this hay very well.  You can see on the right of the photo below all the hay I have left over which I will largely use for hog and cattle bedding in the winter months.

Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I started brainstorming solutions.  One possible solution that Joel Salatin uses is to graze his hay fields until he’s ready to make hay, thereby keeping the quality high.  Since all my fields have a good perimeter fence, and it would just take some electric fencing to subdivide the fields so I could rotationally graze, I thought this would be a good idea to try.

 

 

 

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My cattle were tired of eating hay and they were eating the permanent pasture and woods down to nothing, so I decided to turn them into the first hay field April 14th.  It seemed too early and I feared I would damage the forages in the field.  But one strategy I planned to use was to only leave them on the forage for a week or less.  Keeping animals on a forage for a week or less should prevent overgrazing.

Overgrazing occurs when a plant’s regrowth is bitten off, because a plant is the weakest when it has used its root reserves.  A plant is using its root reserves to regrow when there is no green or very little showing, because when it can, a plant will use photosynthesis to meet its energy requirements to grow.
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Well the experiment worked very well as far as the cattle were concerned.  They had plenty to eat.  And the forage wasn’t damaged at all as far as I could tell.  But it regrew so well, and the grass is so intent to go to seed, that it was tall and mature by the time I came back with the cattle to graze a second time on June 7th.  It had been rested since April 21st, so that is nearly a 7 week rest.

Maybe too long, as the top and bottom photo show the cattle back in that hay field.  In the bottom photo you can see the neighbor’s alfalfa field in the background which he harvested for haylage twice as I grazed twice.  The calf in the bottom photo is a fall calf which probably weighs around 500 lbs to give you a reference.  The heifer in the foreground of the top photo is 20 months old weighing over 1000 lbs.

The good news is even though you can see all that tall orchard grass headed out and mature, the grass and alfalfa and clover down lower was mostly new regrowth and higher quality which the cattle enjoyed grazing.  The other concern for me would be potential eye problems with the cattle reaching through that tall grass to graze.  But there have been no problems.

The second and third photos in this post show another hay field from the same vantage point.  The second photo is May 16th with the cattle grazing.  The third photo is after I cut the field for hay on June 27th.  It was rested from May 20th to June 27th, a little over five week rest.

Even though there was quite a bit of tall orchard grass which is what makes the hay look so light in color, there was fresher regrowth down low.  I baled it up and have fed one bale to the cattle.  They are munching on it, so I’m thinking I may have made better quality hay than last year, even though I made it later by the calendar.

One benefit is it was very easy to make dry hay as the weather and ground had dried out quite a bit compared to a month earlier.  I plan to give it another five week rest and then take a second cutting which should be very high quality.

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Fall Calving, Fall Farrowing

November 15, 2015

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100% or above calving percentage through four fall calving seasons, but it has not been without some work on my part.   I don’t want to overstate my contribution, as a good herd of cows will wean 90% without any effort from their farmer, but that last 10% usually requires some effort.  100% calving percentage means every cow has a live calf and raises it to weaning.  90% means 9 out of 10 cows wean a calf, etc.

The first two fall calving seasons I did absolutely nothing and the cows weaned 100%, but I had a feeling I was using up my luck. The most recent two have had problems, including death loss, but twins have made up for the losses.

This season started with a small calf born dead out of my oldest cow, 465, who has been in photos on my blog.  It was most likely born early, but it looked fully developed.  I’m going to sell the cow, because she doesn’t have a chance to contribute anything until next fall, and she’s eleven years old.

Had a few live calves and then one morning I checked and a cow, 612, was with two calves, but as the sun rose she started walking away from where she spent the night and calling to her calves.  They both tried to follow, but I could see she was only concerned with one of them, and that has been our experience in the past.

So I called my Dad to come with his ATV and help me get the cow into the pen by the barn.  I picked up the calf that was being abandoned and carried it in on the ATV.  With patience we were able to walk the cow and calf into the pen also.

Something didn’t look quite right, as there was a large difference in size between the two calves.  I checked the other cows and 8110 had a small new calf with her.  I conferred with my Dad and realized what had happened, something out of the ordinary, but something we had seen before.

8110 had twin calves in the night.  612 was in labor and her maternal hormones were kicking in.  She “claimed” one of the twins as her own and probably let it nurse.  She then had her own calf.  8110 walked off with one calf by the time I checked them and found 612 with one of the twins and her own, larger calf.  It also helped my diagnosis that I knew 8110 had twins the year before.  There is a genetic component to twinning.

At this point, it had been enough trouble getting 612 into the pen that I was willing to let her nurse both calves if she would let them.  The larger calf was strong enough, and 612 was calm enough, that I was able to push the calf in the right direction and he started nursing.  612 quickly began to claim both calves, so I decided she would get to nurse two calves and kept them isolated for a few weeks so that there was no chance of one of the calves being separated.

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I have nine fall litters doing very well.  The weather has cooperated for the most part.  There is no sign of the piglet scours which plagued my herd last summer.  As I hoped, I believe my herd has developed immunity to the disease.


Annual Pollinator Mix, 4 Week Update

May 16, 2015

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It’s doing well.  Click on the picture for a larger image.  Most of what you see is the oat cover crop, but I’m happy to see many of the different flowering forbs up and growing as well.

In the background you can see the cattle.  I turned them into the first of many hay fields to graze.  They are loving the tall orchard grass and alfalfa, as they had been grazing their permanent pasture for a month.


Shades of Red Livestock

December 27, 2014

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I’ve often thought we need to expand our color vocabulary in the livestock world.  Each of the animals in this photo is red, except maybe the lone piglet which I would non-creatively call tan and white.  The breeds in this photo are predominantly Red Angus for the cattle, and Duroc for the swine.  Each of these breeds can vary from tan to dark red.  But we cattle and swine farmers just stick to “red” when describing all of them.

Horse people are a little more creative: Chestnut, which includes Liver, Sorrel, and Blond;  Bay, which includes Dark Bay, Blood Bay, and Brown;  Champagne; and others I’m sure.  But I’ve always considered Horse people crazy, surpassed only by Dog people.

But writing this has made me realize I’m probably missing out on a marketing opportunity by not creatively describing my animals.  Some Shorthorn breeders have done this by crossing Red Angus with Shorthorn and marketing the resulting crossbred bull as a Durham Red.  When I used to sell a lot of boars, I sold two crossbred lines called the Oak Grove Red and Oak Grove Blue.  That worked really well for me as farmers would alternate Red and Blue boars annually, and it was easy for them to remember.

So I’ve thought myself into a circle.  Livestock farmers, we need more colors for our livestock.  Horse people, I still think you are crazy, but you are right on the money describing the color of your horses!


Thankful for Driftless Grass

November 27, 2014

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This bull is fifteen months old.  He was born August, 2013.  Wintered on his mama’s milk and hay.  Weaned onto spring pastures in May.  Grazed Driftless region pastures and hay fields for  another six months.  And now stands there weighing close to 1300 lbs.  His shrunk, sale barn weight was 1260 lbs, a few days later.

If you are a cattle farmer, the above paragraph may be difficult to believe.  If I heard this story a few years ago, I would have found it difficult to believe, and would have been on the lookout for qualifier words.

Qualifier words are used to hedge a statement.  They give the speaker wiggle room.

An example:  Someone says, “I pretty much exercise every day.”

Some people hear that and think, “Wow, that person exercises a lot!”

I hear the qualifier and break it down into fact and wish.  The fact in this statement is that the speaker does not exercise every day.  A good guess is that the speaker wishes he exercised every day.

I used one qualifying statement in the first paragraph.  Can you find it?

DSCF2064I said he weighed “close to” 1300 lbs.  The fact is he did not weight 1300 lbs, or I had no way to know for sure what he weighed, hence the qualifier.

If I ended the first paragraph on that sentence, it would have neutered the whole paragraph.  It would have been a list of what I did, followed with a guess statistic.  If that was all I had, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write this post, as I’ve written before about how I manage my fall-calving herd.  But the sale-barn weight, an actual pay-weight, gives heft to the story.

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Standing next to the bull in the middle photo, and in the bottom photo, is a fall-calved steer, similar age as the bull.  The steer did well and weighs around 1100 lbs.  Steers don’t gain as fast as bulls.

I sold most of my fall-calved yearlings, but plan to keep this steer and three others through the winter so we can have beef quicker next spring for our farmer’s markets.  They’ll probably be butchered after a month of good grass in the spring.

Why did we have a yearling bull?  He looked tremendous as a calf, so I sold him to my parents to be used later as a breeder.  They later had second thoughts about the temperament of the genetics from that line, so we sold him.

I was disappointed as I thought he was a tremendous bull, but this blog post is a way to make lemonade, I guess.  We probably wouldn’t have know his true weight if we hadn’t have sold him, which brings us around to the title.  I never cease to be thankful for the richness of the grass in the Driftless region.


Twin Beef Calves are Trouble

September 1, 2014

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Twin beef calves are trouble.  Maybe some of you have a breed of cattle that regularly takes care of twins without human intervention, but my cattle do not.  Invariably, a cow will claim one calf and forget about the other one.

Fall-calving started about the middle of August.  These two twin heifers were born one evening.  Since they were both wet and hadn’t nursed yet, I decided to wait and see if the mother would claim both calves, or at least allow both calves to nurse once to receive the valuable first milk called colostrum.

Colostrum contains antibodies from the cow which provide passive immunity to diseases until the calf begins to develop its own immunity.  Antibodies are able to pass through the calf’s stomach because it is porous.  A calf’s ability to absorb colostrum through its stomach wall diminishes rapidly, and is pretty much done within 24 hours.

The next morning I checked and found the cow had taken one calf and left the other.  So I took the abandoned calf home and gave it a bottle of Colostrx.  This is a purchased product which is a substitute for the mother’s colostrum.  That night I gave the calf a bottle of milk replacer.

The next day I checked the cattle again and was surprised to see the other twin had not nursed.  The mother of the twin had large teats, but not excessively large, perhaps the twins had a difficult birth and weren’t quite bright enough to find a teat.  I saw that the calf was hungry and trying to find a teat, but I could tell that none of the teats had been nursed.

I called my Dad to come and help me take the calf out of the pasture.  I anticipated a more difficult time, because the cow was very attentive to this twin, unlike the twin she had abandoned.  It was a good thing I called him because after picking up the calf and carrying it away on the ATV, the cow followed close behind and I needed his help to get out of the gate and keep the cow in.

I gave the second twin a bottle of milk replacer.  I didn’t bother with Colostrx because the calf was 36 hours old.  Now I had two bottle calves, and wasn’t looking forward to the morning and evening chores of feeding two calves.

I thought about the way the cow followed me on the ATV.  There isn’t any cattle-handling facilities in the rented pasture, but there is a round horse pen.  I thought that just maybe, I could lure the cow into the horse pen.  I knew there would be no way to chase her in, with acres of wide-open spaces.

I set up a small hazing fence near the horse pen with some panels that were nearby.  I opened the small gate to the horse pen and then drove my ATV out to the cow.  When she saw me she began to follow me.  As she started to slow down, I made my noise which sounds like a calf mooing and she picked back up.  I stopped the ATV a ways away from the gate and got off and walked into the horse pen.  I bent over in the weeds like I was doing something with a calf and made the mooing noise.  The cow followed right through the small gate.  I jumped up and shut the gate behind her.

I called my Dad and he brought my truck and trailer and we hauled her to his corral.  The next morning we put her in the catch chute to restrain her, and started the slow process of teaching the calves to nurse an udder.  The cow kicked a little, which made our job more difficult, but we got both calves to nurse enough.

We did this process maybe three more times, then we transitioned to a small pen, with one person keeping the cow’s attention, while the other person maneuvered the calves towards the cow’s udder.  We did this process three or four times, morning and night, and now they’re nursing on their own and she’s claiming both calves as her own.

We will still keep them in the corral for a couple of weeks and then transition to a pasture away from the other cattle after that, to ensure she doesn’t lose one of the calves.  As the calves become stronger, they will also make sure they don’t get lost.  Oftentimes the twins will stick together as the mom goes off to graze.

I’m thinking I’m going to have to stop calving in the rented pasture.  It’s impossible to check them if they want to hide in the thick woods.  And there isn’t any handling facilities if there is a problem.

I’ve been pushing my luck for too long.  If I prepare for trouble, I’ll probably have very little.  If I continue to not prepare, I feel I’m due some bad luck.

 


Contour Strip Cropping, Farm Update

July 19, 2014

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There must be some sort of dubious record I am setting this year.  The top photo was taken July 6th.  It shows the contour strips, which is how we farm the hillsides in Wisconsin to prevent soil erosion.

The green in the foreground is a little strip of hay next to the road which was cut and baled in June.  Next up in the photo is very mature, cut hay.  Yes, the last of first cutting was made in July.  The green strip in the middle of the photo is hay which was cut and baled in May, and is now ready to be cut for a second time.  The light colored strip above that is my oats and hay new seeding which is cut and drying, waiting to be baled.

So, yes, I made first cutting hay in May, June, and July.  I know of no other farmer who is as on the ball, and behind, as myself.  At least I’m still laughing.

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The bottom photo shows my sweet corn on June 26th.  Beyond the sweet corn are the farrowing huts.  I’ve had 14 beautiful June litters.  Beyond the farrowing huts are my grass-finished steers.  I started them grazing hay fields at the end of June.


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