North Central Research Extension Center


| Share

Field Feeding-a Win-Win

Rising costs have resulted in increasing crop producer interest in improving soil productivity and lowering reliance on petroleum based fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides imports. Attention is being placed on low disturbance planting, diverse cropping rotations, and cover crops to enhance soil biological activity, improve soil structure and water infiltration, and cycle and release nutrients.
Similarly livestock producers faced with rising costs and declining prices are looking for lower cost feeding and management alternatives. Their attention is on minimizing yardage costs associated with feed harvest and delivery by implementing practices such as later calving and, extending the grazing season through greater utilization of low cost feed resources such as crop aftermath and cover crops.

A greater integration of farming and ranching in mixed agriculture regions by having cows feed and spend more time on fields post harvest, may represent a win-win arrangement. Considering the difficult and costly task of stockpiling enough hay for a long wintering period, an extra 45 to 60 days grazing after mid-October should be a target that ranchers can shoot for to make their hay resources stretch through the winter.

Crop residues including pea vines, corn stalks, and grain chaff and straw are low value feed resources. For the most part they are not even adequate nutritionally to meet cattle needs without supplementation. Baling and transporting adds considerable cost to something of low value. They can be grazed in the field in late fall and early winter with electric fencing, a water source, and possibly some supplemental and reserve feed.

In corn producing regions, residue and stalk grazing has long been a wintering practice. More recently we are seeing chaff and straw being bunched by a simple mechanical collection system attached to the rear axle of the combine. The grazing of straw-chaff piles left in the field along with supplemental feed has reduced daily costs versus pen feeding by around $.40 per cow per day. A variety of feeds (typically dropped on residue piles) including DDGS, silage, high quality hay, or feed grains are being supplemented to meet cow nutritional needs. The rate of supplemental feed is dependent on weather, cow condition, and stage of production.

The win from the cattlemen’s point of view is the fuel and cost savings gained from harvesting and transporting less feed and not needing to remove and spread manure. A win from the farmer’s point of view is the potential soil health enhancement and fertilizer expenditures reduction. Much of the N and P consumed by the cows passes through and is returned to the soil. As no-till and cropping diversity are good for soil, so it appears cows in the cycle also provide benefit.

But there are concerns. Residual biomass must be adequate to protect the land from soil or water erosion; which can be easily managed. It is suggested half of the material be left to feed and protect the soil. Poorly cleaned up piles or clumps of residue or manure will interfere with precise planting and uniformity of crop emergence. This may necessitate a harrowing prior to spring seeding. Compaction from grazing prior to spring thaw has not been a problem and subsequent crop yields have shown to be equal to non-grazed fields. Cattle must be provided natural or temporary wind break protection when field grazing or feeding into winter with extreme cold and wind.

For sites near the operation’s winter headquarters or with good access and protection, practices such as bale grazing or delivering harvested feed allows cows to be kept on farm fields essentially through the winter. Both of which, returns nutrients to the soil more efficiently than spreading pen manure with fewer environmental concerns.

It appears there is opportunity for producers to work together and strike up business arrangements in which cattle are grazed and fed on farmland at an added return to the farmer. Benefits to both can contribute to a more sustainable and profitable agriculture situation.

Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.