Swath-grazing: A Potential Alternative to Hay Feeding for Wintering Beef Cows

Final Report for FNC98-232

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $2,955.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Data from the Standardized Performance Analysis system (Langemeier et al, 1995) has shown that the single expense for a cow herd during the production year is feed expense and that reducing this expense while maintaining production levels is the most effective management strategy to increase herd profitability.

An expense of particular importance for cow herds in the North Central region of the US is winter feed costs. The standard winter feeding practice for cow herds in this region is to feed hay which had been baled the previous summer. However, machinery expenses associated with windrowing, baling, and transporting the hay to the cow herd and then returning the manure to the field’s impacts profitability and increase as herd size decreases when expressed on a per cow basis. Considering that the 2000 USDA Cattle Inventory Report indicated that on average herds in the North Central region had 43 cows, this latter point becomes particularly relevant.

Canadian ranchers have successfully wintered beef cows by grazing them on small grain crops which were swathed into windrows. In Canada, the swath-grazed crop was the only crop grown on the field that year. With the relatively high land rental rates which are occurring in the US, devoting land solely to the production of a winter feed source for cows if this opportunity cost were included would make this practice cost prohibitive against the alternative of feeding hay unless extremely high production levels could be achieved. Given the longer growing season which exists in south central SD, a more cost effective alternative would be to plant the crop to be swath-grazed following the harvest of a small grain crop.

Following the harvest of winter wheat, rye was planted in a field to evaluate its potential as a winter fed resource for beef cows. Adequate forage growth did not occur prior to winter dormancy for the rye to serve as a viable feed resource for cows during the winter. Adequate forage availability may have occurred if the crop had been planted earlier in the growing season. While the rye crop was unable to serve as a feed source for cows during the winter, forage availability the following spring suggested that it would be a cost effective alternative to hay feeding if it were swath grazed.

Materials and Methods:
In 1997, the field produced two cuttings of alfalfa hay. In mid-August the field was sprayed with Roundup and it was seeded with a no till drill to winter wheat. The winter wheat crop was harvested (yield =52 bu/acre) on July 10, 1998.

Before seeding, 252 lbs/acre of fertilizer (23.9-7.7-0.2) was applied and the field was disked once. Rye was drilled into the field on September 1, 1998 at a depth of two inches and at a rate of 50 lbs/acre.

On May 18, 1999 total clipped samples were obtained from five different sites throughout the field. These samples were then dried and weighed to determine dry matter production.

Results and Discussion:
The cost of establishing the rye crop was $44,74/acre (table 1). On May 18, 1998, approximately 8.5 months after the crop had been planted; 2690 lbs of dry matter (DM)/acre were found to be available.

Table 1. Direct Cost Itemization
Activity, $/acre, total $
Disking, 5.80, 290.00
Fertilizer, 22.10, 1104.86
Fertilizer application, 3.59, 179.43
Seed, 5.75, 287.50
Drill rent, 7.50, 375.00
Total, 44.74, 2236.79

Prior to winter dormancy, only limited rye growth had occurred. The factors which likely limited rye growth were temperature and day length by themselves or in combination because climatological data from the NOAA weather station located 30 miles from the field in Pickstown, SD (table 2) suggests that adequate moisture should have been available to support plant growth. Consequently, if the rye had been planted immediately after the winter wheat crop had been harvested in mid-July adequate forage availability may have allowed the crop to serve as a feed source for beef cows during the winter.

While the rye crop was unable to serve as a feed resource during the winter, enough plant growth occurred during the spring where the rye could have been a cost effective feed resource if it were occurred during the spring where the rye could have been a cost effective feed resource if it were swath grazed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service currently suggests that a harvesting efficiency (amount of forage grazed/amount of forage available) of .25 occurs when cattle graze standing forage. This harvesting efficiency factor suggests that of the 2690 lbs of DM available/acre, only 673 lbs would have actually been consumed by the cattle resulting in the cost/ton of DM consumed being $132.90 which was approximately $80/ton higher than feeding hay (table 3).

Table 2. Monthly mean temperatures and precipitation at Pickstown, SD (January 1998- May 1999)
Temperature – Degrees F 1998 and 1999, precipitation – inches 1998 and 1999
January, 22.7, 20.8, .47, .28
February, 34.3, 35.5, .40, 1.34
March, 28.8, 37.1, 1.78, .75
April, 47.2, 47.6, 5.85, 4.97
May, 61.9, 58.0, 2.00, 4.61
June, 64.2, -, 5.97, –
July, 74.6, -, 2.42, –
August, 74.3, -, 1.98, –
September, 69.3, -, .69, –
October, 51.2, -, 4.08, –
November, 39.6, -, 1.35, –
December, 28.9, -, .16, –

Reports from Canada (Thomson, 1999) suggest that very little loss (<10% of the DM) occurs when cattle graze windrow swaths. While additional expense would be incurred by adding the activities of windrowing and raking the crop, this additional expense would be more than offset by the increased harvesting efficiency which would occur. In fact, the amount of feed consumed would be increased enough that the rye would actually be a slightly less expensive feed resource than hay (table 3). In all of the feed cost calculations which have been discussed so far, no land costs have been assessed. The reason for this is that the land costs were assumed to all be applied against the primary crop of winter wheat. With crop land rental rates in the area ranging from $55 to $70/acre this is an important opportunity cost which needs to be included if the swath-grazed rye crop were the only crop raised on a field during the entire production year. Assuming that a $60/acre land rental cost were included, this would mean that for swath-grazing to result in lower feed costs than just feeding hay, at least 2.5 tons of DM/acre of rye would have to be produced. Canadian ranchers who have implemented swath-grazing have indicated that average yields were two tons/acre and three tons/acre were produced in good years. Table 3. Dry matter costs of various feed resources
DM availability lbs/acre, cost $/acre, feed cost $/ton
Hay1, NA, NA, 50.09
Rye (grazed)2, 673, 44.74, 132.96
Rye (swath-grazed)3, 2421, 53.49, 44.19

1. Assumes a diet of 33% alfalfa hay ($45/ton) and 67% grass hay ($25/ton) with hay that contains 85% dry matter. Daily machine costs of $.10/hd and a feed waste factor of 10% are also included.
2. Assumes a harvesting efficiency factor of .25 of the available forage.
3. Assumes a 10% loss of available forage and in addition to the costs described in table 1, also includes costs for windrowing ($7.50/acre) and raking ($1.25/acre).

Results from the project will be disseminated through Rancher’s Resource Workshops conducted by the NRCS offices in the surrounding counties, and through presentations to area Bootstraps/IRM groups.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.