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Photo: Cows grazing on corn residues. Link to photo information
North Plains farmers can save money by allowing cows to graze on swaths of corn residues during the winter. Click the image for more information about it.

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Grazing Cattle Year-Round Pays Off

By Don Comis
July 3, 2008

The good ol' days are coming back to the Northern Plains, with new twists based on recent research findings by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

ARS researchers in Mandan, N.D., have shown that a newly designed program of "swath grazing” allows cattle to, once again, graze year-round, even in the middle of a North Dakota winter. The concept involves pushing harvested crop leftovers into row piles up to 16 inches high, to keep them within reach of cows in winter.

Winter grazing, from mid-November through mid-March in North Dakota, can save farmers as much as 24 cents per cow per day, compared to the costs of baling hay for winter corral feeding. With a herd of 200 cows, that would save a farmer more than $4,000 in feed costs a year.

Soil scientist Don Tanaka and colleagues at the ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan calculated those savings based on data from a four-year research project. In each year of the study, the scientists monitored 20 pregnant Hereford beef cows due to give birth in March. The nutritional needs of pregnant cows increases as pregnancy advances. This makes the winter feeding of late-pregnant cows one of the most expensive times in beef cattle production.

The researchers compared weight gains from swath-grazing cows on the residue of annual crops—oats/peas, triticale/sweet clover and corn—to gains with perennial western wheatgrass, and with bales of hay fed in winter corrals.

Another benefit of swath grazing: The cows in this system also distributed their manure evenly over the landscape, eliminating the chore of removing manure from corrals. The manure also provides fertilizer for crops and improves the soil.

Integrating crops and livestock benefits both enterprises.

Read more about the research in the July 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.