Swath Grazing - Frequently Asked Questions

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 How can swath grazing reduce production costs?
Labour and machinery costs are decreased. There is no need to start a tractor and feed by hand. The costs associated with baling, stacking, storing or covering feed is eliminated, along with the reduced costs of corral cleaning and spreading manure for the period of time the animals are swath grazing. Manure is deposited throughout the field, improving overall fertility of the field. If swath grazing is managed properly, there should be no difference in body condition score between cattle that are swath grazing compared to those being fed in a traditional manner in dry lot.

How to manage swath grazing?
The use of electric fence is essential to control access to feed and to reduce waste. Cattle will tend to consume the higher quality portions of the forage first, leaving the straw for last. Once the heads are cleaned off the forage, energy and protein levels in the feed are greatly reduced, which may cause impaction problems in cold weather and the loss of animal condition. Using electric fence to provide new feeding areas on a regular basis will reduce wastage and sorting and trampling of feed.

If the crop has experienced drought, cut after a frost, or were grown on heavily manured or fertilized fields, it is important to have the feed tested for nitrates.

When should the crop be cut for swath grazing?
Typically crops are swathed in late August / September, when the crop is at the soft to mid -dough stage, resulting in high quality forage.

Do animals require bedding and fresh water when swath grazing?
Providing a bedding pack reduces energy requirements of the animal by 10 to 15 %. Having a loafing area reduces manure contamination of the cut feed. Cows that lie in an area typically manure in the same are when they get up. Cows will not eat feed that is contaminated with manure.

Water is required if loose snow is not available to the animals. A lack of water will dramatically reduce feed intake within two or three days.

Concerns of swath grazing
Monitor animal condition on a regular basis. Older more aggressive cows will consume the higher quality portions of the feed. Timid or young cows (first and second calvers) may only be able to consume the straw component of the swath after the mature cows have picked through the feed. If animals are getting thin remove them from the swath grazing area and feed separately to regain condition prior to colder weather.

What to watch for when swath grazing?
  • Extreme weather conditions causing crusting snow and ice removes the water supply for the animals.
  • Supplemental water sources are needed immediately.
  • Provide portable windbreaks to reduce exposure if bush areas are not available.
  • If the cows are still with calf, swath grazing should not be used due to the possibility of the animals loosing condition.
  • If the area used for swath grazing is in areas with wildlife, these animals can damage or consume considerable amounts of forage in a short period of time.
  • If the areas are not grazed properly, residue can be a problem when seeding a crop the following spring.
All of the above factors can be mitigated with good management techniques.

An Introduction to Swath Grazing in Western Canada

Swath Grazing - Interesting Concept, But Does It Pay?

Prepared by Nanita Blomquist, Ag-Info Centre, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
For more information about the content of this document, contact the Ag-Info Centre.
This information published to the web on November 20, 2003.
Last Reviewed/Revised on November 10, 2016.