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The Benefits Of Bringing Cattle And Crops Together

11 November 2020
Beef Cattle Research Council

Grazing cattle on neighbouring farmland can have benefits to both the cattle producer and the farmer if done properly. From Saskatchewan to Manitoba and Ontario the following producers have had success with grazing cattle on neighbouring crop land.

Leanne Thompson and Tannis Axten are neighbours in southeastern Saskatchewan. The Thompsons own and operate a cow-calf and backgrounding operation with 500-800 head of mother cows as well as backgrounding cattle. The Axten family owns and operates a 6,000 acre grain farm that is highly diverse, focusing heavily on soil health and intercropping. Both operations have experienced mutual benefits by arranging to have the Thompsons’ cattle graze stubble and cover crops on the Axtens’ landbase.

Joey Bootsman is a cow-calf producer near Brandon, Manitoba where, along with his family, he calves 600-700 cows, as well as manages backgrounding and grass cattle, and raises bred heifers for sale. The Bootsmans grow most of their own feed but will send cattle to community co-op pastures or other rented pastures in the summer. Bootsman works with his neighbours to graze his cows on their stubble fields when they come home from summer pasture to carry cattle through the fall.

Adam Shea and his family have a beef, sheep, and cash crop operation in east central Ontario. They are located in a very diverse agricultural area that includes ideal cash crop acreage next to hilly areas that are suitable only for grazing cattle. Shea really liked the idea of grazing cover crops but his uncle and father who run the cash crop side of their operation were not so sure. Shea was able to work out a deal with his neighbour to graze cover crops after winter wheat was harvested.

Although all of these producers have a unique story when it comes to working with their neighbours, some common themes emerged.

Communication is Key

All four producers reiterated that clear communication up front was key. While some sit down together and draw up an official contract, others keep things more informal with verbal communications. All agree that making sure everything is talked about early on makes the partnership much smoother. It is important to leave no assumptions on the table. Even things as simple as who will be looking after the cows, fence, and water should be discussed to make sure both parties are on the same page.

Infrastructure is a key communication piece, and often where things get a little tricky. Farmers don’t need or often want permanent water and fencing but having access to those is needed to graze cattle on cropland. Shea and Bootsman combatted this by using temporary electric fence and water troughs and maintaining clear communication about when it would be taken down. It was also important to identify who is responsible for setting it up and taking it down by the agreed upon date.

“It really comes down to trust,” says Axten. “Once you have communicated clearly and the cattle are out on the land you have to trust both parties will make the right decisions.” Axten also recognizes that although it’s easy to want different things than your neighbours, such as more frequent cattle moves, there is also a practical limit to their ability so it is important to reach a compromise that is manageable for both parties.

For Shea, since he is relying on cover crops as a source of feed, he says it is necessary to treat them like a forage crop, and in his area that means ensuring nitrogen fertilizer is applied. The discussion of who is seeding cover crops, who is paying for them, when they are being seeded, when nitrogen is applied, and who is paying for nitrogen application is all discussed the previous year.

When it comes to convincing cropping neighbours it is a good idea to graze cattle on their land, doing it right the first year is key. “You can usually find someone willing to try it once,” says Bootsman. “If you communicate well and continue to be a good steward of the land, they are more likely to want to work with you in the future.”

Assign Value

With proper planning ranchers and farmers can work together to provide a mutually beneficial system. Crop farmers can use cows to terminate fall cover crops, receive some post-harvest income, and positively impact soil health, while beef producers can get additional grazing without buying or renting land.

“Feed isn’t free,” says Thompson. “It’s important to assign value to services provided by both sides even if no money is actually changing hands.” Assigning value to all aspects of the partnership, whether it is grazing time, soil health, or fence construction, allows both parties to understand what they are getting out of the deal. Thompson was clear that cattlemen can’t approach the arrangement with an attitude that the farmer wasn’t using it anyway so there is no value. Having a value assigned assures both parties are comfortable with what is happening and that everyone gets the most out of the arrangement.

Shea is upfront with his neighbour to make sure both parties see value from the outset. “This only works if they feel they are getting something out of it as well.”

For Bootsman the valuation is also clear up front. In his area he pays $500-$1,000 per quarter section for grazing land. Since it is revenue the farmer would not have otherwise received at that time it helps to ensure that he has stubble to graze.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbours

Infrastructure like fencing and water is necessary to graze cattle on crop land and often must be installed before grazing can take place. Adequate fencing will ensure cattle stay where they are supposed to which is crucial for success and a better chance of being invited back to graze again in future years.

For Bootsman and Shea, temporary electric fencing is the solution. Both use a single wire fence (Bootsman uses two wires near a highway) but both emphasize that this only works when cattle have already been trained to an electric fence. Both then remove the electric fence shortly after grazing so it isn’t in the farmer’s way.

The Axtens had some permanent fencing, but it needed repairs and rebuilding. They worked out an agreement with Thompsons where they purchased the supplies and Thompsons provided the labour to put it up.

Portable watering systems have been used by all producers. Shea says being flexible is key, since he only grazes on cover crops after winter wheat has been harvested and he rotates the fields he uses every year. In some years he has been close enough to the yard to simply run a hose and in other years has had to haul water.

Thompsons have also relied on portable watering systems, but occasionally get lucky and are able to tie on to water lines from their own property if grazing land is nearby. For fall and winter grazing, they tend to rely on dugouts or snow for a water source while cattle are on Axten’s cropland.

Know Your Conditions

Understanding the conditions and knowing when it is time to move cattle, or not put cattle out at all, is important to prevent damaging the crop land.

Where Bootsman is located, wet fields tend to be a problem, and being flexible helps to avoid damage in the fields. He tries to manage his cattle according to the conditions. In a high rainfall year, they may have to remove cattle, adjust grazing to later in the season, or not put cattle out at all. Later season grazing often allows cattle to help clean up farmer’s fields by removing regrowth.

Bootsman has noticed that heifers pace more than cows, so they may cause more damage along fence lines. In those cases, he works with the farmer and is willing to help pay for any extra tilling or working the land that is required to reduce any damage that is done but finds that by spring, most evidence of cattle grazing is gone.

Although wet conditions are often not the main problem for Axtens, they do like to see cattle graze after the ground has frozen. They feel that grazing at this time helps prevent damage and compaction of the soil. Axtens also like to see cattle only remove about 50% of the residue meaning that cattle are moved according to the amount of residue that is left over.

For Shea he also tries to alter his grazing plan to do minimal damage to fields. If he knows that specific fields have low or wet spots, he tries to graze those first so that they have the most time to recover. He has grazed wet fields before and finds that with good management and quick cattle moves, he can usually prevent any long-term damage.

Move Cattle Frequently

Short grazing periods was important for all producers to reduce the amount of damage that is done to crop land as well as prevent cattle from overgrazing. These specific grazing management decisions were different for each producer. For Bootsman, he likes to graze a group of 250 cows together in one herd. This allows a quarter of land to be grazed in five to ten days.

For Axtens having cattle on every acre was important but so was only taking half of the plant material. When cattle were grazing their land they liked to see most of the acres being used and if there were less nutrients available they would just move through quicker. Thompsons have tried different grazing techniques including a mob grazing style where large numbers of cattle were turned onto a cover crop or stubble for a short amount of time. Because of their large and diverse cattle herd, they can often gather a large herd of cattle to move quickly through a field, sometimes in only a few days.

Even with smaller cattle numbers, Shea is still able to move quickly over a piece of land. He uses portable electric fencing to build a “hub and spoke” grazing area in the paddocks. By placing the water source in the center of the field and fencing outward from there, he is able to move cattle every few days and allow them on a piece of land for a short amount of time. Spacing is key for this model, as Shea is often trying to make cattle clean up the cover crops so that they can seed a no-till crop in the following years with minimal problems. Shea finds that if you give cattle too much space, they will inevitably just lay on the crop and make a mess of things.

Use the Right Class of Cattle

It is important to match the nutritional needs of the cattle that will be grazing to the quality of feed that is available. Although supplementation is often an option it is typically harder to do on land that isn’t owned by the producer. A feed test can help determine which classes of cattle are best suited for the feed source available.

For Thompsons and Axtens, choosing the right class of cattle was important. Once Axtens decided what pieces of land they wanted grazed and when they wanted to graze it, Thompsons could then select the appropriate class of cattle to meet those requirements.

Bootsman says stubble can work well for maintaining body condition but stubble alone won’t work for lactating cows or growing steers or heifers without additional supplementation, he adds.

For the first few years Shea brought his spring calving (March/April) herd home from pasture in the fall and put both cows and calves out on to the cover crops. Although both the cows and calves came back in great condition, they had to bring them home before they had grazed all the cover crop to wean and market claves. Last year Shea sent the cows to the cover crops after weaning and backgrounded the calves. Turning just the cows out onto the cover crop meant that they were able to graze until early December.

Shea was originally concerned about both cows and calves being at risk for nitrate poisoning and bloat but has had no concerns with either. The cover crop mixture includes a cash crop base (usually oats), purple top turnip, and daikon radish for soil improvement, and some type of legume, although he hasn’t found a legume that works well in his area yet. He turns the cattle straight out from pasture onto the cover crop and has yet to have a problem with bloat.

Overall, grazing cattle on cropland can be a win-win strategy for both cattle producers and farmers as long as all cooperators are clear and upfront about the goals of the partnership. Starting small may be a good idea as it enables both producers to get their feet wet before committing to a larger partnership. Shea points out that, “every acre you graze is additional days you aren’t feeding cattle in a bunk so even a small amount is worth it.”

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