A Growing Opportunity for Alberta Cattle Producers
With more and more varieties designed to thrive in our Alberta climate, producing an exceptional source of good biomass, corn is becoming the crop of opportunity for cattle producers when it comes to fall and winter grazing.
“Certainly corn is a system that is relatively new and novel to Western Canada,” says Dr. Bart Lardner, professor, Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC), Dept. Animal & Poultry Science, University of Saskatchewan. “Looking at grazing systems as a whole for all of the options that producers have for extending the grazing season, corn is really becoming more and more of an option for a lot of producers. Even in years of below average rainfall or drought, like these last couple of years, corn will produce really good biomass and help stretch out those grazing days throughout the fall and into the winter months.”
According to Lardner, there are several reasons why corn is attractive:
- The varieties that are produced today are designed to produce good biomass, no matter where you are in Western Canada.
- Per acre, corn can produce 2.5 to 3 times the biomass compared to small grain cereals.
However, Lardner does caution producers to be careful and diligent when it comes to growing the crop, as well as grazing it.
“It’s a crop, that, as a producer you first need to feel comfortable growing, and secondly your animals have to be comfortable grazing it.”
~ Dr. Bart Lardner
“Our costs at the WBDC are running about $250 to $280 input per acre, so you want to make sure that you are utilizing 90 per cent of the biomass or greater and leaving minimum residue to maximize your returns.”
Getting off to the Right Start
Because corn grazing is such a new approach to managing your beef herd in the winter, along with the fact that it is a high input crop, Lardner recommends that producers start small, with five to ten acres of the crop and slowly increase as they feel comfortable. To be successful, he recommends that producers be sure to cross-off the following check boxes to properly grow, as well as graze the crop;
- Select the right variety - Start off by selecting the right corn varieties for your growing area. Varieties with lower heat units are becoming more readily available. Speak to your local UFA Customer Account Manager (CAM) about varieties that will perform and provide maximize yields.
- Carefully plan - Carefully plan and select areas that have access to water, windbreaks and natural shelter belts. Perform a soil test prior to planting, as corn requires high levels of nitrogen. Soil testing will save you time and money and best support efforts to provide corn as a low-cost energy source.
- Weed control - In the early growing stages, the corn plant is extremely vulnerable to weeds, so addressing the weed pressure issue is critical to the success of the corn crop. Lardner recommends treating at both the four leaf and eight leaf stage – to make sure the crop is clean to enable you to achieve good yield per acre come the September time period and that first killing frost.
- Choose the right equipment and timing when seeding - Recent research performed by the Western Beef Development Centre shows that seeding with an air drill resulted in 10 to 15 per cent less biomass per acre, as compared to using a corn planter. It is also important to remember that seeding dates of the crop should align with warmer temperatures. Lardner recommends soil temperatures above 10° C and planting seed 2 inches below the soil surface.
- Manage and monitor grazing - “Do not manage corn grazing like summer pasture,” cautions Lardner. “Once the corn crop is out there, and we are setting it up in terms of being able to graze it, we need to approach that with the correct manage and monitor type approach. Our research program has always suggested to allocate three to four days of fresh forage for grazing. Why? Because corn is a unique plant that has different structures, and certainly the highest starch structure part of the plant is the cob. We know that cows are very selective when they graze and they will go after that ice cream part of the plant first and we want to avoid that high intake of starch causing digestion upset.”
Lardner warns that for producers that don’t monitor or control crop utilization or let too few cattle on too big of an area, they are risking death loss.
“Corn is a high nutritive value crop that actually exceeds the nutrient requirements of a beef cow in her first and second trimester of pregnancy, often not requiring additional energy supplementation. Protein may be limiting for cows in the third trimester or close to calving, so do a feed test and provide a protein supplement. When grown and managed effectively it makes an ideal fall and early winter grazing strategy.”
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