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Economics overcomes inefficient tradition

Changing grazing habits harder for farmers than cows

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There is little doubt retired grassland researcher Duane McCartney is a deserving candidate for the award the forage industry is bestowing on him at the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association annual meeting in Toronto later this month.

But the recipient of the association's first-ever leadership award is also the first to say his career-long pursuit of better grazing systems for the beef industry is part of a much bigger story -- how a sector caught in a catastrophe was able to transform itself and land on its feet.

McCartney is internationally recognized as the "face of extended grazing" for his work during the past two decades in helping cattle farmers realize there is merit in the old adage: Cows were meant to walk and grass was meant to stand still.

"As a kid, I didn't like to feed cows in the winter," McCartney says when asked why he started exploring extended grazing systems while working for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in the early 1990s.

He knew it was doable. After all, there were ranchers in Alberta who had been overwintering cow herds in pastures for more than 30 years. After the snow came, the cows grazed on strategically placed large round bales or on cut hay that was left in long swaths beneath the snow.

"The researchers didn't create this thing," he says. "The farmers created it. All the researchers did was look at the systems, look at the economics, look at the herd-health aspects and put the extension packages together."

But extended grazing wasn't widely practiced. Back then, most cow-calf producers spent their summers baling and hauling hay to winter feed yards and then hauling the manure back out to the field.

Then in May 2003, disaster struck with the force of a tsunami. The discovery of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) caused Canada's export markets for beef and cattle to disappear, virtually overnight. And they didn't reopen for years.

The crisis forced producers to rethink tradition. "Farmers were looking for a way of still being viable and they were looking for anything that would lower costs," McCartney says.

Publicly funded researchers working with producer groups showed ranchers how they could significantly lower production costs with little capital investment required -- something that is highly unusual in modern agriculture.

"We basically found that we could lower the cost of wintering cattle by about 45 per cent compared to the traditional way," McCartney says. "That was mainly because you didn't have to haul the feed to the feed yard, you didn't have to bale it or chop it for silage, you didn't have to haul the manure out and you didn't have the feed losses in the feed yard. Plus there was a big reduction in the amount of equipment you needed, and a lot less labour.

"We basically look at being able to extend the grazing season as the biggest cost saving that ever hit the beef industry," he says.

In order to deliver on the concept, researchers embarked on a multidisciplinary mission to identify the best practices from an economic and environmental perspective, the best herd genetics and the best pasture forages.

Many producers were initially skeptical, fearing their cows wouldn't be able to find the feed through the snow. "Cows can successfully graze in two feet of snow as long as they can see the hump in the snow where the swath is," McCartney says. And because the herd is following those swaths across the field, the manure is naturally spread.

In less than a decade, virtually all of the cow-calf sector in the Canadian beef business has moved toward some form of extended grazing, ranging from several weeks later in the fall to some producers doing it year-round.

Ultimately, the conversion came down to timing and producers' receptiveness to new ideas. It is unlikely this transformation would have happened as quickly without the extra pressure the BSE crisis placed on producers to squeeze costs out of their operations. Old traditions -- even inefficient ones -- die hard.

"It was harder on the people to change than it was for the cows," McCartney says.

Making it happen took leadership, to be sure, but it was a team effort on many levels, starting with Canada's commitment to public research. When confronted with a disaster in agriculture, governments can deliver aid that props up the status quo, or they can invest in research that gives producers tools to adapt. This was a case in which the latter paid off in spades.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 B4

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