“It takes about 10 minutes to feed 160 cows, and we don’t burn a drop of fuel,” says Wayne Heinrichs in describing his herd’s winter feeding program. The Brandon, Manitoba, cattleman figures he can feed a cow for $1/day.
By Nov. 1, he strategically places alfalfa-grass hay bales into standing corn for his herd to feed on from December through mid-March. When winter comes, an electric fence is moved every couple days to give cows access to new feed.
“It’s really pretty simple,” says Heinrichs, who has experimented with the grazing method for the past nine years. It saves in costs and time because he doesn’t mechanically harvest corn or haul bales all winter.
His method also captures and spreads out nutrients from the cows’ manure and urine. “Every bale I graze in the field I get a $5-7 fertilizer gain on the nutrients.”
Some years the producer doesn’t fertilize corn and still gets 80-90 bu/acre – plenty for his grazing requirements, he adds.
Heinrichs began experimenting with standing corn for winter grazing after learning about it from other graziers. Because of his full-time job off the farm, he didn’t want to spend summers making hay and winters feeding it. He liked that the cows could harvest the feed themselves.
Choosing the right corn hybrid was important. He participated in local Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization hybrid trials that compared cob size, kernel size, leaf loss, digestibility and spring feed quality of the top two-thirds and bottom one-third of corn plants. Now he knows enough to look for a hybrid that will make a good cob, is not overly tall, and retains some leaf through winter.
“You want a kernel with a slow drydown. I look for kernels that stay slightly soft after the first killing frost because they’re easier for cows to digest.” Leaves should not become too dry and blow off stalks.
But a corn-only diet was giving cows too much energy and affecting their performance, Heinrichs felt. So he added round bales of alfalfa-grass hay, providing more fiber and protein as well as calcium and phosphorus. “I want half the cow’s ration to be corn and half to be alfalfa,” he states.
Heinrichs’ corn and hay are raised in rotation, with 35-50 corn acres available for grazing and about 300 hay bales to winter his herd each year. The hay is grown next to the corn so bale-hauling costs are minimal. Bales are placed about 50’ apart along two electric fencelines, and the strings are removed before snow flies.
The corn plants protect cows and bales from wind, can be used as bedding and trap pockets of snow that cattle use as a water source. “They stay dry, and the corn keeps their energy level up so they can take the cold,” he says.
Bales like the one at left hold a temporary fencing system’s pigtail posts positioned horizontal to the ground to make it easy for Heinrichs to move electric cross-wires and give cows access to fresh feed.
Hay is sorted by quality and placed so cows won’t reach the best feed until later in winter, when they’re further along in gestation. Heinrichs calculates the number of cows to be fed, days of winter feeding and estimated grain in the field. The fence is moved every two to three days so that, each day, a cow gets about 10 lbs of corn grain, plus residue, and 20 lbs of alfalfa-grass hay.
His costs are at about 35¢ for 10 lbs of corn grain/head/day (based on the corn crop costing about $200/acre to grow). Adding hay puts the total cost at about $1/day/cow, he says. It’s even less if you consider the value of the fertilizer the cows leave behind.
Heinrichs moves cattle off the cornfield by mid-March, when the ground begins to thaw. By spring calving they’re in a lot that provides high, dry ground and a reliable water source.