Four years ago, Mel Compton and his son Shawn, of Darlingford,
Man., zero-tilled 2,700 acres of durum, winter wheat and peas. In addition
to the grain operation, Compton fed about 150 to 200 grassers on the
wastelands. Mel had been grain farming since the mid-'80s, but the
disappearance of the Crow transportation subsidy meant one thing for the
Comptons: they had to change the way they were farming.
In 1995, they started the transition to grass and cattle. By 1998,
they were intensively grazing 1,100 stockers on 560 acres. "Right now you
can make more money grassing steers than growing grain," says Mel. The
complete budget for the switch was $56,000.
As a first step, they sold off 3 quarters and disposed of some
leased land. Then they swapped a quarter section with a neighbor to gain
access to water. They now own 400 of the 560 acres they grazed last year.
Besides land, they sold the air seeder, a tractor, a combine and 2
trucks for another $400,000, which was used to pay off their debts.
The equipment he charges against the cattle operation today
includes a garden tractor and an old pickup truck. "That's the only
collateral we have against the cattle," he says.
In the fall of 1997, they tore down most of their existing fence.
They started on a 40-acre field of established alfalfa by rotationally
grazing 50 steers using cross fences. The rest of the land was air-seeded
to a pasture mixture with a cover crop of canola. They didn't spray or
fertilize the canola and the crop still yielded 20 bushels an acre.
That fall, after harvesting the canola, he fertilized the pasture
which contains bird's-foot trefoil, alfalfa, timothy, tall fescue,
orchardgrass and meadow bromegrass. His first surprise was how fast the
tame bunch grasses came on. "You can almost hear them grow.,,
Trefoil was included to dampen the bloating effects of the alfalfa and
provide some quick regrowth.
"I'm a great believer in trefoil," Compton says. if a low spot
requires reseeding, Compton throws some trefoil on it. He also includes a
handful of trefoil seed in the mineral so the cattle spread the seed in
their manure. About half of the seeds germinate.
Last spring, Mel and Shawn developed their rotational grazing plan,
fencing the new seeding into ten 32-acre pastures and splitting those into
3- and 6-acre paddocks with single-wire reels. Two hot wires on treated
wooden posts are used for the perimeter of the 320 acres and to fence off
the riparian areas. Compton incorporated 24'-wide grazing lanes into the
end of the field so they can easily move the cattle to the yard and into a
3-acre holding paddock. The holding paddock is enclosed by 3 hot wires, so
incoming cattle quickly learn to respect this fence.
This spring, the Comptons are building a new processing corral with a
curved chute where they can handle animals without having to herd them into
the corner of the property.
After the fence went up, the next step was to set up a means of
drawing fresh water from the creek that runs through their property. First
they trenched a hydro line a half mile from the house to a dam on the creek
where they installed a pressure tank and 2 submersible pumps. In case one
breaks down," says Compton. "And when it's really hot and the cattle are
drinking more, I can run both the pumps at the same time so we always have
lots of pressure." The water is pressurized to 65 pounds per square inch,
Sections of heavyduty polypipe clamped together and laid along the
fence rows transport the water to the paddocks. "It's so toug you can
drive on it and the cattle walk over it all the time," says Compton. Every
300 feet are one-way valves leading to hoses that fill the portable
rubberized troughs in the different paddocks. Every time he moves the
cattle, he moves the troughs to spread out the manure and trampling.
The oiler and mineral stations are also mobile, and when Compton
heads down the grazing lanes on his garden tractor, towing a mineral
station, the cattle string out behind. Having continual access to
mineral/salt and keeping the cattle out of water also helped stop footrot.
Pinkeye was the biggest health problem last summer, but by increas-
ing their stocking rates this summer they hope to keep it under control.
"Some of the grass got so tall, it headed, and that contributed to the
pinkeye." The other contributing factor was an abnormally large number of
flies last summer. To hold down the fly population, they attract birds by
building bird houses along perimeter fences.
At the beginning of the season almost all the cattle were
given Rumensin boluses. They still had 2 bloat deaths, but they occurred 2
weeks before shipping, probably when the boluses were finished. Wanting to
take a Sunday afternoon off, Compton put some steers on 15 acres instead of
their normal 6. With less grazing pressure, 2 of the steers ate only the
alfalfa, bloated and died.
As a trial, he also left 10 steers on the pastures without
a bolus, and they all survived. "I think you can manage your alfalfa-grass
mix and pasture rotation to cut down the risk of bloat," notes Compton.
Based on that small experiment, he may skip the bolus treatment this year
and pocket the $13,000 he spent on them last year.
After the 2 animals bloated, Mel moved the remaining steers twice a
day and grazed them on 2-acre paddocks. 'It forced them to eat the higher
fiber grass as well as the alfalfa,' he says. "And it limits what they can
eat.' He warns that rotational grazing is not an exact science nor is it
for someone who doesn't want to be tied down during the summer.
The only weeds they had to contend with were wormwood and knotting
thistle. Last year, he spot-sprayed and kept a shovel handy to dig out
these inedible weeds. The rest, like Canada thistle and dandelions, were
eaten by the cattle. 'In fact, dandelions can be 24% crude protein."
Compton's long-term goal is to attain an average daily gain of
about 2 pounds a day for 120 days on grass. "We'll be able to put the
heifers out a month early this year, so we should be able to increase the
gain,' he says.
Over the entire season, each acre fed 80 head for one day. This
year, they're going to increase their stocking rate by 25%, grazing 1,000
head of 800-pound steers that they backgrounded this winter on the 320
acres. To do that, they will have to move the cattle twice a day. They'll
also graze 150 to 200 heifers on 80 acres of native pasture, and they're
fencing 160 acres that they hayed last year to graze another 400 to 500
They own one-third of the cattle and custom graze the rest for
Cattlex, an order buying firm in Hamiota, Man. At 40 to 44 cents a pound
for custom grazing, Compton says it's worth having Cattlex share the risk
of getting the steers too heavy. "Currently, a well-managed custom-grazing
operation will net (not gross) as much as if you owned them,' he says.
At 411 pounds of gain per acre for the steers, the net return per acre is
better than most crops. "Especially when you consider your input costs,
and we don't have as much debt to finance."
"Our goal is to net on 560 acres of grazing as much as we would have on
2,700 acres of cropping,' says Mel.In - Maggie Van Camp
To Unsubscribe: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command
"unsubscribe sanet-mg". If you receive the digest format, use the command
To Subscribe to Digest: Email email@example.com with the command
All messages to sanet-mg are archived at: