Winter swath grazing is quickly gaining popularity in western Canada, says Duane McCartney, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist at Lacombe, Alberta.

“There's been a huge uptake,” says McCartney. “You can reduce winter feed costs by 50% if you swath graze.”

Compared to drylot feeding, costs for labor, feed and manure handling are all reduced, he adds.

The system takes planning, starting with crop selection. Most producers plant small grain crops for that purpose. Oats and barley are the best choices because they yield the most forage.

“We get the latest-maturing oats or barley we can find,” says McCartney.

It's best to seed a little late, usually during the last half of May. Other than that, the crop is managed as a grain crop.

The typical swath or windrow is 4' wide and 2' thick. Swathing is timed for the soft dough stage in mid-September or later, just before the first killing frost. By then, seasonal rains have ended and the weather is cool.

“The whole idea is to keep the swath in a cold state, without rain,” McCartney says. “It doesn't deteriorate if it stays cold and dry.”

Grazing usually begins in November.

Some training is required. Don't take a herd straight from all barbed-wire pasture to one- or two-strand portable electric fencing for swath grazing. “They need to be trained to an electric fence to make it work.”

Alberta researchers prefer the ‘tumble wheel’ system. Fenceline passes through the hubs of several six-spoke wheels. As long as the fence is tight, the spokes stay vertical and keep the line off the ground. Operators roll the fence forward to provide new swaths.

Some ranchers use standard fiberglass ⅜" fence rods, first drilling holes in the frozen ground with a portable electric drill and a wood bit.

The grazing site must be monitored. Generally, says McCartney, “We portion it off so cows clean up the area in one to three days. They clean it right down to the ground before we move the fence.”

Snow can serve as the water source, but it needs a backup. Ideally, plan fences so that cattle can get to a reliable watering place daily — just in case. It beats hauling water all winter if there's no snow.

Similarly, plan for shelter and bedding. Cattle will lay down to rest, or seek shelter somewhere. If they rest on swaths, they won't eat there.

“We had about a 25% reduction in utilization one winter because of that,” says McCartney.

The best plan probably is to keep fresh bedding on the snow at the edge of the field. Alternatives may include access to a wooded area or a portable windbreak fence.

Producers typically swath graze until March or April calving. Then some put the cows and calves back on swaths for a month or so to let their other pastures get well established.

However, when cows swath graze with nursing calves, hay or grain should also be fed, says McCartney.