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Alternative Approaches Help Rancher Graze Longer

Ranching in northern climates brings with it a unique set of challenges. Extending the grazing season in these boreal locations where snow and ice can be major concerns takes grit and a willingness to do things a little differently.

Located in Canada's historic Assiniboine River valley near Shellmouth, Manitoba, Nerbas Bros. Angus is a multigenerational ranching operation consisting of three families, Gene and Cynthia Nerbas, along with sons, Aaron and Shane and their families. The Nerbas family manages their approximately 600-head cowherd on a foundation of holistic management principles and forage-based Angus genetics to produce cattle that are able to survive and thrive in a forage-only environment.

Stockpiling for early-season grazing

"We use a planned grazing system, similar to rotational grazing," says son, Shane Nerbas who manages most of the operation's grazing. "We are shooting to graze for at least eight months of the year. Our only limitation for grazing is too much snow."

Like many in northern regions the growing season for the Nerbas ranch begins later, usually late May to early June for their area of Manitoba. Stockpiling forage provides a way for the operation to have feed available prior to this period and allows for cattle to get started grazing right away once the snow melts.

Once stockpiles are depleted, cattle shift to pastures with new growth forage until about the 20th of June. To prevent overgrazing, animals are moved quickly to new paddocks. Any forage grazed before this time point is stockpiled again for the next year.

"How often we move them really depends on what's happening that particular season," notes Nerbas. "It all depends on things like paddock size and the amount of rainfall."

Soil types, as well as forage species composition, range across Nerbas' pastures. Native grasses hold the majority with a variety of introduced legumes such as clovers, alfalfa, and vetch varieties making up the rest of the sward mix. On their more sandy soils, he notes, Cicer milk vetch has been a particularly successful addition.

Bale grazing through winter months

"Once our grazing season is done, which is usually about December 1st," says Nerbas, "then we go to bale grazing."

Nerbas admits bale grazing did not come easy at first, "When we started we were a bit naive to how to do it. We just set up big grids and would give them say one or two rows at a time, depending on how many bales were in it. We would just keep moving the wire, but had lots of trouble with them breaking through."

To remedy this, Nerbas Bros. Angus fenced off more paddocks. Blocks of round bales are set up in grids in each individual paddock. They now move the cows to a new paddock instead of moving a wire.

Land health plays a big part in deciding which paddocks will be used for bale grazing, remarks Nerbas. The poor pieces of ground get first priority and bales are placed early in the season.

"We like to have it done before October 1st," says Nerbas, "because anything can happen with the weather here after then. It's not very fun when it rains and then it freezes."

Hay waste and manure deposited by cattle during bale grazing benefit have an additive effect on these lower quality soils, putting nutrients back into the system where they are most needed.

Reaping benefits, facing challenges

The benefits Nerbas Bros. Angus has seen from managing their grazing this way have been threefold. Nerbas says his cattle are healthier and disease issues such as foot rot have been greatly reduced.

"Environmentally, each year the grass just gets better and better, provided you have adequate or even some rain," says Nerbas. "From what we used to do traditionally, we probably can graze two months to two and a half months longer than we used to."

And financially, Nerbas explains, "It is a huge benefit as it requires a lot less hay. On an average day in the winter it's going to cost us at least a minimum of $1500 a day to feed our animals. So if we can take away 60 or 70 days it's a lot!"

Even with the benefits, Nerbas will tell you learning the ropes of these grazing methods did not come easy. The ranch faced challenges to implement them effectively.

"It requires a lot of fencing," says Nerbas, "which isn't the hardest job in the world. It just takes time."

Nerbas Bros. Angus used Gallagher products to construct their fencing system. They maintain a strong perimeter fence constructed of high tensile and use a single-strand of high tensile to divide each pasture into paddocks approximately 50 to 80 acres in size. Temporary poly wire fencing is occasionally used to split paddocks further into smaller blocks.

In addition to fencing, Nerbas notes in the beginning they were under the impression the bigger the herd the better for density. But he notes, this is only true up to a point. While this may work in some scenarios, Nerbas found by condensing their entire herd into one mob it made it harder for them to keep up with forage growth and lead to an unwanted increase in animal stress.

"We were finding we weren't getting to our last paddocks until it could have been the end of September," says Nerbas. "Then with the bigger herd like that, when you would go out to check the grass or animals they just seemed to get really worked up because they thought they were continually going to get moved somewhere."

Nerbas opted to split the herd in half and has found this works much better for their grazing system.

"We can get through our paddocks in a more timely fashion and our regrowth is a lot better that way," says Nerbas. "But we have also had to make the paddocks size smaller too."

Tips for success

For those wanting to give these grazing methods a try on their own operation, Nerbas emphasizes one of the most imperative things producers need to do is break the mentality that leaving grass behind after grazing an area is a waste.

"We want it (grass) trampled in there so we are feeding the soil as well as feeding the cows," says Nerbas. "Don't look at it as a waste, but as capital you are building your land with."

Secondly, Nerbas believes having a grazing plan and ensuring pastures get adequate rest are vital.

"Give your land lots and lots of rest during the growing season, even if you are only grazing once a year," says Nerbas. "At least 90 days in between paddocks and try to get the cows to pound as much grass into the soil as you can. Once you have a thatch on your soil you can do so many good things, like capturing rainfall more effectively."

Ultimately, Nerbas says what is most essential is to continually try to do a better job. Every year will be different. It is up to producers as caretakers of the land to adapt management to these changes and continue to build the resiliency and health of the natural resources and animals they care for.

Visit Nerbas Bros. Angus' website and follow them on Twitter, @NerbasBrosAngus to learn more about their ranch.

Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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“From what we used to do traditionally, we probably can graze two months to two and a half months longer than we used to.”