In the past, farmers processed and stored winter feed for their cattle. In recent years there has been a pendulum effect, whereby cattle producers have started wintering their cattle using swath grazing instead of on-farm feeding. This is when a crop (barley, oats, and corn) is cut in the fall, and left on the ground rather than processing it for feed. The swaths are then grazed. In spite of its use, swath grazing is still regarded with some scepticism.
The main idea behind swath grazing is to save producers labour and money. By allowing the cattle to graze in the field, feed processing, transportation, and the costs and labour associated with feeding and manure disposal are eliminated. Manure is left on the land, providing fertilizer for future crops. Stephanie Kosinsky, a Forage Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, acknowledges that many producers are switching to swath grazing in an industry that continues to see increased costs. Kosinsky claims that swath grazing is a practical solution to combat both high fuel costs and the recent diesel shortages.
As well as enabling producers to keep their costs low, thereby increasing their profit margin, labour associated with swath grazing is minimal when conditions are ideal. A local beef producer, Jay Herder, has used swath grazing for six years. He believes that swath grazing has many benefits. “The biggest advantage is that I am able to feed 250 cows in 20 minutes, which allows me to work off the farm.” This is important because off-farm employment has become necessary for producers because current costs are rising, causing a decline in farm profits.
Is it as easy at Swath Grazing? Herder admits there are also disadvantages to swath grazing. Weather is probably the biggest factor in determining how much care and maintenance the cattle will require. Snowfall is the largest issue for producers. A heavy snowfall, or snow that has hardened, may cause the cows to have difficulty accessing the swaths. Kosinsky agrees with Herder and advises that an alternative feed source must be available in case of a heavy snowfall. Water access should also be considered when swath grazing.
Although cattle can eat snow, it is not an optimal water source. Cattle must eat large quantities of snow to compensate for water intake. This causes an energy loss when the snow is heated to body temperature. Therefore, an appropriate water system should be explored.
Despite some drawbacks, swath grazing is an inexpensive alternative to on-farm feeding. As feed costs are rising, producers are looking for more viable feeding alternatives. The Lacombe Research Program has shown that the costs for swath grazing are approximately fifty percent lower than the costs related to feeding stored feed. Research shows definitively that swath grazing is an effective way to reduce costs and labour. As Herder says, “the idea of cheapening the feeding cost is really the issue. As for the future, farmers have to search for ways to do this or their farms will not be very viable.”
by Heather Fleck, Ingrid Buyks, Amy Mayner, Steven Cowan, Raven Deagle, and Robin Diether