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Low-Cost Winter Feeding Systems for Cow-Calf Producers

Kelln, B. and B. Lardner. 2008. Saskatchewan Agriculture Development Fund


This project is focused on comparing beef cow performance and reproductive efficiency, soil and crop factors and economic differences between four different winter management systems. Study results will complement information already available for western Canada and provide new information for winter feeding beef cattle in the Black soil zone of Saskatchewan. With feed costs rising, reducing the cost of production is crucial in today's operations in order to maintain sustainable production and the viability of cow/calf operations. In order to be both economically and environmentally sustainable, producers must take advantage of low cost feed sources and systems, while at the same time ensuring a high plane of production management. During the past number of years producers have moved towards extensive winter feeding systems in attempts to reduce costs associated with winter feeding. While this is economically beneficial for producers, questions have been raised regarding the impact of these systems on cow performance, soil health, and subsequent crop production. This study was conducted to evaluate the effects of winter feeding systems such as drylot feeding, bale grazing, swath grazing and straw-chaff grazing on cow performance, cow reproduction, soil nutrients, soil compaction, crop yield and cost of production between systems. In the first year, cows on swath grazing had a 4% lower final body weight compared to drylot fed cows. Under winter field conditions, feed allocation is important because cows in extended grazing require extra energy to offset the energy cost of walking, foraging and maintenance during winter. However, winter feeding system had no effect on subsequent year's calf birth weight or calving pattern. Estimated dry matter intake for cows on all feeding systems was slightly lower or similar to NRC (1996) requirements. Final body weights of cows on all feeding systems were similar during the last two years of the study. Soil nitrate nitrogen levels between feeding systems were related to landscape position (slope) with levels 2X greater at low than at high slopes on bale graze sites. Nitrogen distribution was affected by the swath graze pattern and was associated with feeding site. Greater distribution of feed in this system resulted in increased nutrient distribution. Applying compost and manure mechanically on the field resulted in lower nitrate nitrogen levels compared to areas which received no manure as the site had a history of previous manure application. Phosphorous distribution patterns were seen to correlate with feeding site and parallels could be drawn between manure distribution and crop biomass the following year. Soil compaction was not a problem on any winter field feeding system. Finally over the 3 year study period, winter feeding systems such as straw-chaff grazing, bale grazing and swath grazing were 5, 6 and 40% lower respectively, in cost per cow per day compared to winter feeding the same cows in drylot pens.