grazing pays off year-round

Lillooet rancher moves herd to keep animals and land healthy

by PETER MITHAM VERNON—Regardless of

where they are in North America, cow-calf producers feed hay for an average of 130 days each year, says Tristan Banwell of Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet.

But on his 260-acre

property in the Upper Fraser Canyon, cattle graze deep into the winter and get hay on an as-needed basis. And even then, his herd of 50 cow-calf pairs, heifers and replacement animals feed while moving across the ranch just as if they were grazing what’s underneath the snow. “We’re feeding it based on

what we actually need to feed,” he says of the farm’s use of hay. Drawing on lessons from

US grazing expert Jim Gerrish, Clint Thompson of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and others, Banwell told the Certified Organic Associations of BC annual conference in Vernon earlier this year how his ranch implemented rotational grazing.

The best way, as any 4-H club member knows, is to learn to do by doing, but it also takes planning. Pasture needs to be prepared and set aside in the fall so cattle can move into it when the snow flies. Alfalfa – bloat-resistant varieties when possible – are grazed first, then orchard grass and others. “We’re stockpiling this in the field and we’re trying to extend our grazing for as long as possible,” he said, showing a slide of snowy pasture. “The cows will graze through snow.” Often, since it’s frozen fresh,

it will have a higher protein content and deliver more energy to the cattle than grasses that have been cut and dried. “A lot of producers would look at this and say, ‘That is crap; you cannot feed that to your cows,’ but in a lot of cases, stockpiled forage can have better quality than some of the hay you can put up,” says Banwell. Better yet, the cows will be

harvesting it, saving the farmer the effort. “They’re doing their job,” he

quips. “You’re not paying to work for the cows; they’re working for you.” Winter is also a good time

for new producers to gauge the grazing rate of their animals and how large a paddock should be, says Banwell, crediting Thompson for the insight. “[It’s] the most forgiving time to assess your paddock sizes,” he says. “If you overgraze in the wintertime, the impact is not nearly as bad as if you overgraze during your growing season.” Only when the stockpiled

forage is used up will Banwell start to feed hay, in what he calls “bale grazing.” “We put out all of our

winter feed in one day,” he says. “The principle here is you’re still rotating them throughout the winter just the same as you are on pasture, except that you’re putting those bales out there. … Then we start moving the cows down through it.” The leftovers become a soil amendment. “We’re bale-grazing on the

poorer areas of our pasture, and we’re using that as a way to move nutrients to those areas,” he explains. “There’s lots of ways to bale graze, but we have found that as our herd size increased and our grazing capabilities improved, we can leave as much or as little

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Tristan and Aubyn Banwell use rotational grazing to manage their cattle, reduce manual labour and reduce feed costs, especially in winter. JOEL SPOONER PHOTO

residual – which we call waste – as we want.” Bale grazing can also help

break up brushy areas, thanks to trampling by the cattle. “We just throw the bale right into the nastiest, shrubbiest crap you can find and just let the cows bust it up,” he says. “They’re working for me.”

Once the first flush of

spring growth starts to appear, Banwell gives it room to grow and shifts the cattle to where there might be some forage left over from the previous year. He estimates the cattle get a mouthful of the old for every bite of new grass, which prevents the cows from 1.877.688.2333

“shooting like a two-inch firehose out the back.” Given the tender new

growth, the paddocks will be

much larger and the animals will rotate around the

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