Stubble Grazing Your Cattle

Turning cattle onto harvested fields is a great way to use forage and save money.

by Rebeca Kuropatwa

When you think of turning your cattle onto pasture, do you picture lush green fields that your animals can feast upon joyfully? This may be the case during periods of seasonal abundance, but your pastures don’t need to be picture-perfect for your cattle to gain nutritional value from them. In fact, having your cattle graze on harvested fields—called “stubble grazing”—offers many positive results.

What Is Stubble Grazing?

“When cattle are grazing stubble fields, it’s not so much the actual stubble itself,” says Lorne Klein, forage specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. “It’s the rows or bunches of straw, chaff and cracked grain that went through the combine that they are looking for.”

These stubble fields can be the harvested leftovers of crops like cereal or corn, though in corn, a good percentage of the plant stock will likely still be standing. So what the cattle are grazing on is crop residues, which can be collected during harvest and left in bunches in the field for grazing during the fall and winter. By collecting the residue in bunches, you improve access during adverse weather conditions and take away the chore of needing to haul it away, saving you both time and money.

“A lot of the work on chaff collection used to focus on it being hauled or used in some manner on the farm,” Klein says. “This is all about leaving the crop residue in the field in a bunch, giving you protection against the snow.”

Another factor that should be taken into consideration is re-growth of past harvest. Depending on the year and the weather, the amount of volunteers that grow will vary.

Why Graze Cattle On Stubble Fields?

The main driver for employing stubble grazing on your farm is economics.

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“You’ve already grown the crop,” Klein says. “Provided there’s a source of water, whether a dugout or snow, all you need to do is get [the field] perimeter-fenced.”

While the stubble-grazing method is not free, it is one of the most cost-effective ways to do fall and early-winter grazing. It is also potentially the lowest cost feed for cattle, potentially cheaper than summertime pasture.

Part of the savings comes in labor costs by having cattle spread their manure on the land themselves, instead of in the barnyard, where you’d have to muck and spread it later.

“Keeping them in the yard on full feed, you’d be looking at [spending] around $3 per day per cow,” Klein says. “Having them stubble graze after all the added costs, you are looking at about $0.85 per day per cow, depending on the different variables.”

Stubble Grazing Management

A farmer can use any parcel of land for winter stubble grazing, as long as they have four things:

  • portable wind breaks
  • electric fencing
  • a water source (which can be snow)
  • supplement feed (as needed)

Using snow at a water source carries with it a training period for the cattle.

“You have to be careful how you go through this training period,” Klein says. “For example, one thing people will do is feed their cattle farther and farther away from the water source in the wintertime, so eventually he cattle get fed up walking for water and eat the snow.”

The need for and amount of supplemental feed depends on whether you are grazing standing grass, residue or swath grazing annual cereals. The best way to know the content is to do a feed test of what it is you are expecting your animals to salvage/graze. Then, based on feed test, you will need to balance their feed ration with grain, pellets or hay.

“With slothed cereals, you might be able get a complete ration, but if you’re winter grazing standing corn, you’re likely going to need to supplement feed, as corn is short on protein,” Klein says. “If you’re grazing crop residue piles, you almost need to be supplementing feeding through the duration, because … unless there’s a whole lot of green stuff and they are able to graze that as well in the winter, potentially with crop residue piles and some amount of supplemental feeding, you can go until the first of April.”

Watching the ration is critically important, especially within the two months prior to calving.

So if you’re looking for a way to save costs, work your herd more efficiently and give your cattle some extra grazing time in the colder months, consider adding stubble grazing into your management system.

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