West-Central Forage Association

Evaluation of Grazing Corn Varieties to Extend Grazing Season and Reduce Winter Feed Costs in Western Canada

This research will focus on evaluating low heat unit varieties of corn in an effort to reduce winter feeding costs for beef cattle in western Canada.  This will be accomplished by evaluating the agronomics of growing corn across a number of locations in Alberta and Saskatchewan and by evaluating feeding systems for wintering beef cows and backgrounding calves.

It is expected that using the low-heat unit corn varieties to extend the grazing season will reduce the overall feed costs for the cow-calf herd and the cost of gain for backgrounding calves, thereby improving producer profit and the future expansion of western Canada's beef industry. Retaining calves and implementing a backgrounding program is one option for cow-calf producers to minimize risk and increase profitability.  However, this relies on cost-effective feeding programs during the growing phase. By following calves into the feedlot, this project  also will show from a systems perspective, the value of such an intergrated approach to management. By incorporating the use of low-cost field feeding systems into both the cow-calf winter feeding program and backgrounding programs, beef producers can potentially manage risk more effectively.  This project will provide necessary data so that researchers, industry professionals, and producers have a quantitative assessment of the yield and quality for commercially available low heat unit corn varieties. The results of this work will benefit Alberta and Saskatchewan cow-calf producers by providing new information on the agronomics and economics for growing low-heat unit corn and using these varieties under winter grazing settings for beef cows and weaned calves.

This project is being done in partnership with Western Beef Development Centre and Dr Bart Lardner, Western Beef Development Centre, Principal Investigator 

Objectives:

  • Determine the production potential and quality of 3 hybrid low heat unit corn varieties intended for grazing over a 3-yr period in small research plots.  There is growing interest in the use of low heat unit corn varieties; however, there are still some concerns about the grazing economics, forage quality, and crop utilization by grazing cattle during winter months.
  • Compare the performance (change in body weight, body condition score, and backfat thickness, rumen fermentation characteristics, forage intake and apparent digestibility) for wintering beef cows grazing corn, swath grazing barley, or fed in a conventional drylot setting over a 3 year period.  A comparative approach among winter feeding management systems will be used to evaluate the feeding costs for each system while considering grazing days and animal performance.
  • Compare the growth performance of calves consuming either standing corn or swathed barley with that of calves fed a ground hay + supplement ration in drylot pens during the fall and winter months over a 3 year period. Compare the growth of the same backgrounded calves during the feedlot finishing period as influenced by feedlot energy source. Calculate the average cost of gain and net return per head for calves grazing annual forages compared to feeding in a drylot pen.
  • Use the results to make recommendations to western Canadian beef and forage industry personnel and producers with respect to the grazing and economic potential of these forages.

Results from 2012 trial

Results from 2013 trial

Design:

Experiment 1: Long-Term Agronomic Study       

A 3-yr agronomic study will be conducted to have a confident assessment regarding the yield and quality of low-heat unit corn and forage barley - grown in various locations in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  Plots of 3 different corn varieties (from Pioneer, Monsanto, Hyland) and forage barley will be located at 2 Saskatchewan (Scott, Melfort) and 2 Alberta sites (Evansburg, Fairview).  At each site, replicate (n=3) plots of each corn variety and forage barley will be established.  (Note: Every effort will be made to ensure replicate plots are established however, some sites may have only single plots.)  In addition, seeding rate, fertility and weed control will be monitored. At each location, environmental data (heat units, daily min/max temperature, percipitation) will be recorded throughout the growing season. Each year quality will be assesed at end of growing season (potential winter grazing time) at each site.  Dry matter yield of crops and stage of cob maturity will be assessed at the end of the growing season.

Background

The western Canadian cowherd is set to enter another expansion phase with the current beef cow population in western Canada at 3.68 million head.  Recent research conducted at the Western Beef Development Centre has emphasized the importance of using extensive feeding systems to help producers reduce costs associated with the winter feeding period.  The use of these systems can have a significant impact reducing the costs associated with feeding.  For example, if the traditional (drylot) over-wintering cost per cow is $1.75/day (Havens et al, 2006), reducing the length of this feeding period by 60 days through the use of extended grazing systems could save the western Canadian beef industry $88 to $227 million dollars per year.  Furthermore, dry-lot systems rely on the transportation of feed, which results in the consolidation of nutrients (excreted in feces and urine) and the subsequent requirement for transportation of manure back into a cropping system as a fertilizer source.  Unfortunately, the efficiency of nutrient transfer in dry-lot settings is low as there are multiple transfer points (e.g. transfer of nutrients from the field to cow, cow to the pen, and pen to the field).  However, the efficiency of this cycle can be enhanced through the use of extensive winter-feeding practices (Jungnitsch et al. 2011).  The increased efficiency is a result of cattle depositing nutrients in urine and feces directly onto land with the resulting nutrients available to the plant the following year(s).  Although western Canadian beef cow-calf operations have traditionally calved in spring and use stored feeds fed in confinement from mid-November through to May at pasture turnout, there is a growing body of work indicating that extensive grazing systems can reduce costs associated with the winter feeding period.  Thus, to provide an additional alternative to dry-lot winter feeding systems, detailed economic and grazing production data from low-heat unit grazing corn varieties is needed for cow-calf and backgrounding producers in western Canada.

Grazing corn residue (stalks) is commonly used as a winter feeding strategy for beef cows in regions with extensive corn grain production (Wedin and Klopfenstein 1995; Funston and Deutscher 2004).  Many cultivars have been seeded, evaluated for production and quality in small plot trials. May et al. (2007) reported corn protein levels will decrease and fiber levels will increase with time in field. However, few corn varieties have been evaluated for grazing livestock performance before being released.  Grazing studies can provide added information on the economics of livestock performance, forage utilization and quality and stand persistence.  Growing conditions and winter grazing have been variable in the Parkland region of the Canadian prairies, and grazing corn has increasingly been used as a grazing crop.  There are some reports of corn grazing by beef cows in southern Alberta and central Saskatchewan (Willms et al. 1993; Lardner 2001; Lardner 2002), however these are usually only one year results from un-replicated studies. The recent development and release of low heat unit varieties has changed the potential for grazing corn as a cost effective winter feed source for beef producers. The proposed research will complement a current study evaluating corn silage varieties for dairy (Yu et al. 2010.). It is important for a longer-term evaluation of these corn varieties from both agronomic and livestock utilization perspectives, at locations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where corn will be potentially exposed to a wide array of climatic conditions (drought, excessive moisture, low temperatures, heat unit accumulation, early frost).

Economically viable options for retaining ownership of spring-born calves through a fall and winter backgrounding program are challenging in western Canada due to high feed and input costs.  The cost of backgrounding calves in a drylot environment is costly from both a yardage ($0.46/day; Highmoor 2005) and health perspective.  It's not uncommon for death loss of fall-weaned calves in drylot to be 2% or greater.  Warm and cool season annual forages have the potential to provide a low-cost, rapid-gain, ecologically and economically viable option for retained ownership of fall-weaned calves.  There is the potential for producers and feedlots to form partnerships in managing the weaned calf during the backgrounding phase. However, a significant gap in current knowledge is that there is very little research on use of whole plant standing corn as a mangement option for backgrounding calves under western Canadian environmental conditions. Further there is very little information available to producers that shows the value (over all performance, economics and carcass quality) of intergration of backgrounding and finishing programs where  cattle have been grown out over the winter on warm (standing corn) or cool (swathed barley) season annuals. Where this is of particular interest is in the use of such programs as management strategies to alter performance through compensatory gain in the feedlot and carcass merit including optimizing lean yield and balancing subcutaneous vs marbling fat deposition. Research by Burns et al. (2004; J. Anim Sci. 82:1315-22). from South Dakota has shown that carcass traits such as lean yield, backfat thickness and marbling fat cat be manipulated by the timing of specific management factors including age and weight that calves go onto feed, timing of high energy feeding, and the timing and type of implant used. One of their conclusions is that contrary to traditional thinking management practices early in the growth period can influence the balance of backfat vs. marbling fat at slaughter and thus influence both quality and yield grades.  The proposed research will  follow up on their research (Burns et al. 2004) as we will not only examine the performance and economics of backgrounding calves on standing corn vs. swathed barley; it will also allow us to look at the interaction between energy source in the backgrounding period with that used in the finishing phase to evaluate from a systems perspective the value of such an intergrated approach to management. Earlier work has shown swath grazing lowered cow herd winter feed costs by $0.58/AUD (Kotowich and Kaliel 2000; Kotowich and Kaliel, 2002).  Additionally, an increased focus on reducing yardage costs is required to support this potential growth of industry partners (Lang, 2006; Highmoor, 2004).

Finally, there is limited information regarding long term (5-year) studies evaluating the benefits of grazing corn with beef cows and stocker cattle compared to swath grazing and drylot pen feeding.

Collaborators include:

  • Al Foster, Forage Specialist, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Yorkton, SK
  • Anne Kirk, Western Applied Research Corporation, Scott, SK
  • Morgan Hobin, Peace Country Forage and Beef Association, Fairview, AB
  • Carla Amonson, West-Central Forage Association, Evansburg, AB

This Project is funded by: Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency Ltd. (ALMA)