Eight years ago, Robert Krentz quit fighting quackgrass and started managing it for maximum production. Today it's his primary forage in several thousand acres of pasture, all fertilized heavily with hog manure.
Krentz and his wife, Jody, operate Evergreen Land & Cattle Co. Ltd., near Steinbach, Manitoba. In 2002, they had about 4,800 feeder cattle in eight herds. Each herd had its own rotational grazing system on a mile-square section of land. Each system had eight paddocks, circling a central corral with water and minerals.
Sections also have clusters of hog barns — a total of 43 last year, housing an estimated 90,000 animals.
Krentz had learned that quackgrass loves hog manure, and swine producers needed places to build barns. So he sold quarter sections of land, in each case giving hog producers lifetime manure spreading rights on the rest of the section. The manure's value as fertilizer was figured into the land purchase agreements.
Hog manure is emptied from lagoons onto the quackgrass each summer at a rate of 10,000 gallons per acre. Rain washes the manure into the root zone, where it's quickly absorbed by the quackgrass.
Krentz aerates the quackgrass each year to keep it from becoming root-bound.
“Aeration enables you to have a thick mat of grass and more production,” he says.
A 1995 trial convinced Krentz that the quackgrass idea had merit. Prior to that, he'd supported a 900-cow operation with about 3,000 acres of alfalfa, timothy, trefoil and silage corn.
His quackgrass trial that year, fertilized with hog manure, produced 4.5 tons of hay per acre.
In the years since, the ranch has doubled in size but requires less equipment and fewer employees.
In late winter, Krentz buys a new supply of feeders. He holds them in a feedlot system until April and early May. Then, over a two-week period, he moves them out to pasture, about 500-600 per section.
All season, he notes, the feeders harvest their own forage in prime condition. “We're putting those cattle on the next paddock when the grass is still high, and we're selling ourselves 20% protein with every move.”
Five months later, the feeders are sold and moved to finishing feedlots. Most gain more than 250 lbs on the quackgrass. “We've been averaging gains of 1.8-2 lbs per day,” Krentz says.
The Krentz ‘system’ works for three reasons, says Wally Happychuk, Manitoba's local ag representative. One reason is Krentz' ability to manage risk in buying and selling.
“He's really good at buying right and selling right, and using futures contracts to hedge or lock in prices,” says Happychuk.
Second is Krentz' use of hog manure as fertilizer.
“He's getting growth from first thing in spring until well into October,” says Happychuk. “The hog manure is giving him a tremendous boost.”
Happychuk believes the system could carry more cattle with an ideal mix of manure, grasses and moisture.
The third reason Krentz is successful: his rotational grazing skill. He's great at paddock management, says Happychuk. Krentz recognizes when to move a herd for the sake of the pasture. He has simplified the whole system so that, after a few moves, the feeders are well-trained.
Each herd orients itself around a central watering point. During the midday heat, cattle are by the water. To get there, they must walk through an oiler positioned in an open gate. The oiler is on wheels so it's easily moved by one person on an ATV.
“When we want to change paddocks, we just hook onto the oiler and move it,” Krentz reports.
Happychuk has established forage trials at the ranch for three years.
“We're looking for responses to high fertility levels from different types of grasses,” he says. “Krentz prefers quackgrass, but some tame forages are excellent. Tall fescue looks really promising; orchardgrass has been good, too.
“I think producers considering this should look at more diversity, rather than just quackgrass, to get a wider range of responses. If you've got different grasses for different conditions, you're going to have a much more productive system, overall.”
Karin Wittenberg, University of Manitoba forage researcher, is working with the provincial department of agriculture to examine effects of hog manure on the nutrient profile of a wide range of grass and legume species. Hog manure provides a wider range of nutrients than most inorganic fertilizers.
“It's not surprising that the stands on Krentz' farm now contain significant amounts of quackgrass,” Wittenberg says. “It's an extremely competitive grass and has obviously responded well to the application of hog manure.”
Although quackgrass can be high in quality when managed properly, it's less productive than some other grasses, she adds.
Krentz's success comes from moving cattle frequently and keeping quackgrass in its vegetative state, Wittenberg says.