Set yourself up for success with grassers

The potential of intensive grazing in pounds of beef and soil and pasture improvement as well as cash returns have been touted wherever there are grazing animals, but it’s still not the norm. One of the challenges is getting cattle raised with the solid barriers of traditional pastures where they stay for months to adapt to much smaller fields with a single string keeping them from fresh grass and more space.

Leon Specht is a grass farmer from Millet, south of Edmonton has been grazing yearling steers for about 15 years and for 14 of those years, he’s worked with a single client, a neighbor who runs a feedlot feeding mostly Angus, both red and black. They pay by pound of gain, so they work with Specht to choose the cattle that he expects to do well on grass. 

He looks for green cattle, with the gut capacity to do well on forage. He prefers British type cattle, but has run continental cattle – running them separately from traditional grass cattle, he’s found them harder to deal with. 

Specht trains the cattle he selects for his intensive grazing system before they leave the feedlot. He wants them to move as a herd with him and to respect electric fence. He sets up his training fence fairly close to the wind shelter and gradually moves it out, taking up more and more of the preferred space of the pen. 

“Since we started training cattle to the hot wire that way, we haven’t had a wreck,” he says. “All the cattle are very respectful of a hot wire.”

The feedlot staff work cattle on horseback, but Specht likes to work cattle on foot, so they may have to become used to person walking as well. Later it can be useful that the animals are accustomed to being handled either with horses or with a person on foot.

To ready them for moving among paddocks, Specht calls the cattle and walks in the pen with a bucket of grain, calling and dribbling out grain as he goes. He does that every day for three or four weeks. Sometimes he goes alone, other times he takes family members or gets them to go in his place. Later he just walks and calls the cattle to him. 

“In every pen, there’s an animal that was somebody’s pet,” he says. “They’re already at the gate as soon as you drive up. Pretty soon the rest are following along. But there’s always one with their head up, or standing in a corner. I don’t take those. My whole herd has to move together. We can’t have a few animals that stay behind and won’t move with the herd.

“Even after the cattle are on my place, we sometimes have an animal that won’t settle into the routine of changing pastures. We bring in the cowboys and send him back home to the feedlot owner’s seasonal pastures.”

This training regime allows Specht to move his steers through belly-deep grass to the paddock that’s next on his grazing schedule with just one person leading and another as drag. He can even call the cattle out of a field he decides has too much alfalfa. He has no problem pushing them across a road with just a single strand alley of poly-wire. “A few spill out, but it’s no problem getting them back with the herd.”

 Once, when cattle broke though a fence and his animals were mixed with a neighbour’s he called and shook a bucket of gravel. His steers stood up and followed him to their own side of the fence. None of the neighbour’s animals moved, no sorting needed.

Specht likes to give cattle a few days grazing at a time – he has a few groups of animals grazing different pieces of land. He finds animals wander check the perimeter if he moves them when they’re not hungry. 

“If they’re hungry when I first turn them into a paddock, they fan out and graze. Then they lie down in the tall grass. That’s what I like to see,” he says.  “If they’re not hungry, or if there’s a weather change coming, they’ll walk the fence and wander the pasture.”

Art McElroy is based at Consul in the very south of western Saskatchewan. He has a different approach to introducing cattle to his grazing system. He has some yearlings of his own, buying cattle he considers undervalued and sells those that seem overvalued. 

“People think of 650 to 750 weight cattle as ideal grassers,” he says “But over- or underweight cattle might be more of a bargain. Any time you can buy a pound of beef for less than it costs you to put it on it’s a good deal. If it has four good feet and four good stomachs, I try to give it the best grass I can.”

In his custom grazing operation, he brings in about 1200 heifers from several neighbours. “Comingling is a stress for the cattle,” he says. “They have to learn a new pecking order, how to move, usually every day but sometimes three or four times a day, and respecting electric fence.”

When the cattle arrive McElroy works to shorten their flight zone and get them to become a herd. He puts them all in a small paddock, about 2.5 acres and uses pressure and release to adjust their flight zone. He pushes them into a corner, moves back and forth as the cattle show discomfort with his approach.  He keeps his eye on one animal and moves slowly towards it. As soon as he sees it raise its head or cock its ears, he stops, releasing the pressure. 

“At first, the cattle start to move when I’m hundreds of yards away,” he says. “Those first few days are quite intense, but if you don’t spend that time with the cattle, things are not nice all through the summer.”  

McElroy figures two or three 20-minute sessions of training a day over about 3 days are enough to settle the cattle – payoff for his three trips to Bud Williams cattle handling schools. 

Along with training the cattle to his system, he moves the cattle three or four times a day to new grazing. Within a week he’s able to expand their paddocks to 2 to 5 acres. 

“They like moving to fresh grass so much, they learn quickly,” he says. “Cattle like to have people around them, we just have to teach them to be driven. I learned a lot about handling cattle and taking the stress off them. I can move all cattle 5 miles down the road with just a dog.”

Once they’re trained and settled, the cattle happily graze very close together. On high alfalfa pastures McElroy uses very small pastures.

“They can be shoulder to shoulder sometimes, so everybody eats just a little,” he says. “But they’re only in there a couple of hours. If it gets too hard on the nerves, I move them to a field with less alfalfa. It’s only a two-week problem.” 

McElroy sees how much the cattle like to move. If he wants to go away for a few days, he’ll give them a bigger than usual paddock.

“They’re not happy when they have to stay in one paddock for three days,” he says. “They really like fresh grazing every day. They’re ready to move when they see me coming.”

Training cattle to be comfortable close to people can have a downside when it comes to treating pinkeye or footrot. Both McElroy and Specht use medication darts, but sometimes it’s a challenge to 20 feet away from the animals far enough to shoot the dart from its crossbow. 

Both McElroy and Specht consider themselves grass farmers as well as cattlemen, spending time with the cattle and observing the grass. And they find it worthwhile.

“It’s a pile of fun,” says McElroy, who was a zero-till farmer before he switched to ultra-high intensity grazing seven years ago. “I learn a lot from spending time out with the cattle, observing the grass. And, now I have time to think about what I’m doing or should be doing. I didn’t have time to think or see what was happening on the land when I was farming. And, the inputs are lower so my net returns are better. It’s a good way to make a living. And it’s rejuvenating the soil, building humus and sequestering carbon.” By Helen McMenamin

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