A cow stands in a harvested corn field south of Washington. Dan Berdo said grazing cattle on corn and soy residue provides producers with free food after harvest, saving hundreds of dollars a day. (Kalen McCain/The Union)
A handful of sheep dig up grain left over from the harvest in a field near Redwood Avenue in Washington (Kalen McCain/The Union)
Sheep tend to stand together in one line. The behavior makes them a slightly greater risk for soil compaction, even compared to much heavier animals. (Kalen McCain/The Union)
Those driving through rural Iowa in late fall may notice a common trend. In many fields, shortly after rows of corn and soybean have become stubble and stalks, animals move in to graze on the remains.
Some experts – including the authors of an ISU study – call this practice “foraging,” others call it field grazing. Some farmers indicated that they prefer the term ‘take to the field’. Whatever the term, those who release their livestock onto their farmland say it drastically improves their bottom line.
“It’s a very, very inexpensive way to feed the cows as long as Mother Nature allows us,” said Dan Berdo, who raises cattle south of Washington $120, you can do the math. This bale of hay will feed 60 cows for a day. We keep about 225 cows, that gives you a little perspective for every day that we don’t have to hay them. It is a lot of money .”
The only downside is the increased need to monitor these fields. Producers must ensure their animals continue to have access to nutrients and potable water and must maintain fenced enclosures. This means that not every field is suitable and those that are often require maintenance.
Berdo’s method of monitoring the food source is to bring in feed throughout the season to check the cows’ ability to forage on their own.
“We bring them some clean hay and see how hungry they are and take their temperature,” he said. “Once they start tidying up the hay pretty well, we start feeding them…they’re not getting anything from grazing at that point.”
A heavy snowfall can end the foraging season prematurely if it completely blocks the ground. Otherwise, the time it takes a given herd to pick a field clean varies depending on the number of animals and the size of the field. It’s different for every company.
According to Berdo, despite their size, cows do not compact the soil too much unless they are released after the spring thaw.
“Any compaction they cause, when they get a little mushy, is removed by freezing and thawing over the winter,” he said. “In February and March, when the frost comes out and the ground softens, we’ll lock them in tighter in a smaller area.”
For other animals, calculating soil compaction can be more complicated. Travis Friese’s family grows row crops along County Road G36 north of Washington and lets their flock of sheep out into the fields after harvest.
This requires a little more monitoring of ground conditions. Too wet and the animals, despite their size, begin to leave tracks.
“Sheep run in a line, so they make tracks all over the field, and then next year I’ll hop over it with the planter when they make a furrow,” Friese said. “You don’t want them outside when it’s too wet, but the snow is fine at the moment. If it rains for a week… that’s it.”
With sheep, Friese said, producers have to be careful about what’s left in the field. Spilled piles of grain from harvest season can be a problem if they make food too accessible.
“You clean them before you release the animals,” he said. “A sheep will sit there and eat corn until it falls over and dies, it will literally overeat…but if they’re looking for it, they won’t.”
Keeping track of the sheep’s food source requires a little more observation from the grower. Erica Friese, Travis Friese’s wife, takes care of the animals while they are in the field. She regularly checks the soil to make sure there is still enough grain and planting material.
“You see how much grass is left in the streams, drive around the cornstalks and see how much corn is left in the ground, how many pods and other things are left to eat,” she said. “Once it’s just the stalk, they really don’t eat much after that.”
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