Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Grazing Weaned Calves on Cover Crops

Notice how tall the rapeseed is.

Last year was the first time we grazed cover crops with cattle. The cover crops were drilled following oat and wheat harvest and consisted of turnips, radish, and clover, along with the volunteer small grain that went through the combine.  We turned in 40 head of bred cows to graze 40 acres in mid-September and grazed until mid-November, when the water tanks would no longer stay thawed.  There was still ample forage left (I would estimate at least 2-3 weeks worth) when the cows were pulled out.  The cows did fantastic and went into winter in excellent body condition.  This led me to think that with the forage quality being that high, it would be better served adding weight to weaned calves instead of grazing bred cows.

After doing a lot of reading and research over the winter, we went into 2016 with a plan to wean and background our own calves on a post-small-grain cover crop rather than selling them directly off the cow.  With the cattle market down about 50 percent compared to 18 months prior, it doesn't hurt to add a little more value to the calves before they are marketed.  We fence-line weaned our calves in the first week of September and had them out grazing cover crops 7 days later.  It was also a first for us using a fence-line weaning method, and I can say we are now strong believers in the practice. However, that is a topic for a future post.  The steers were put out on the cover crop weighing 523 pounds while the heifers were at 507 pounds.  University of Minnesota trials resulted in a 2.23 lb/day gain on a similar cover crop mix, so we are shooting for a 2 lb/day gain (read about the trials here.). The calves have adjusted to their diet and look great, so I doubt we'll have any problem reaching that rate of gain.

Our view off the back porch is awesome.
The first field grazed consisted of a mix of ryegrass, clover, rapeseed, and oats; relative feed value tested at 296. I would advise against including rapeseed in this mix.  The calves would typically graze the much-shorter ryegrass first, which I think may have led to their eyes getting scratched by the rapeseed.  Their eyes therefore teared excessively, causing a few cases of pinkeye to pop up.  I treated any affected calves with tetracycline, administered by a Cap-Chur dart rifle.  We then decided to move the calves over to a different 40 acre cover crop field until the flies were thinned out by a frost. The cover crop in this field consisted of oats, clover, rye, and radish.

The second field of cover crops the calves were moved to had only a single-strand of high tensile wire along the road, and a single-poly wire held up by temporary plastic fence posts on the majority of the fence line.  I will admit that I was extremely nervous of the calves getting out.  Visions of calves running down the road in every direction had been planted in my head by skeptics.  To date, we have had no problems with calves getting through the fence.  I am, however, very picky (possibly fanatical) about checking the fence and making sure it's "hot."

As of November 7th, we have grown approximately 133 pounds of feeder calf/acre with about 3-4 weeks worth of forage remaining.  If we are able to keep the calves out grazing for another 3 weeks, each acre will have produced about 196 pounds of feeder calf with the only additional major expense being cover crop seed and drilling.  I believe we are being mildly conservative with our goal of 2lb/day/calf of gain, but we'll know for sure when the calves are weighed in a few weeks.  With the agriculture sector in poor shape, thinking outside the box, trying something different, and putting in a little extra work, can mean the difference between a profit or a loss.  My advice: sell that tillage equipment and buy some cattle.  Thanks for reading.

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