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Lessons from grazing corn in 2006

Economics look good.

November 29, 2007  By Bruce Barker and Kevin Elmy

For Kevin Elmy of Friendly Acres Seed Farm at Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, 2006
proved to be another exciting year for crop production in eastern Saskatchewan.
It started out with flooding followed up with drought. Spring seeding was delayed
because of the spring precipitation, while the winter cereals were gasping for
air under a year's worth of precipitation in one month. Then the tap turned
off and Elmy received very little rain after June.

The difficult conditions, though, did provide another year's experience in
grazing corn. Each year, Elmy seeds demonstration plots to grazing corn in an
attempt to show its benefits and agronomics.

Kevin Elmy has run corn grazing demonstrations for several years.

Seeding started on the corn field June 2 in 2006, and finished the next day,
with 13 varieties seeded on a total of 35 acres. Elmy used a Bourgault air-seeder
with eight inch centres and four inch spread using 11 inch sweeps and gang packers.
The field was banded with 90 pounds per acre of a 5-27-27 blend that was impregnated
with Zintrac (a liquid zinc fertilizer) and 30 pounds of the 5-27-27 blend with
Zintrac was seed placed. Seventy-five pounds of nitrogen was dribble banded
in front of the air-seeder, which works out to 25 gallons of 28-0-0. The field
in 2005 had winter triticale on 15 acres, a summerfallow strip in the middle
and a CDC Raptor winter wheat field on 23 acres. Elmy aimed for 26,500 seeds
per acre on the Roundup Ready varieties and 31,000 seeds for the conventional.


"The increase of seeds on the conventional varieties will help compete
against weeds," explains Elmy.

Before the corn emerged, a PrePass application was applied to burn off the
germinated volunteer winter wheat and winter triticale. The conventional corn
was then sprayed 14 days later with Accent and Buctril M in 10 gallons of water
per acre. The Roundup Ready varieties were sprayed 13 days after the PrePass
at 0.6 litres of WeatherMax Roundup in five gallons of water. A second application
of WeatherMax was applied 14 days after the first.

"We like to spray the corn to keep it clean up to knee high. Until that
time, corn grows slowly and is sensitive to competition from weeds. We like
to aim for the two leaf stage for the first pass and about five to six leaf
for the second, assuming there are weeds present," says Elmy. "PrePass
really impressed me for controlling the weed flush after seeding, considering
the amount of rainfall we received."

The field was seeded east and west, perpendicular to the road, and then cross-fenced
north and south so the cows had access to 12 varieties. This way the cows had
free choice to graze the varieties that they wanted. Elmy observed that the
palatability varied greatly between varieties at this seeding rate. A bale of
alfalfa was supplemented weekly to help reduce the feed value swings. He explains
that during the first couple of days of grazing, the cows grab the cobs first,
then leaves and finally the stalks. With high stocking rates, the cows have
less time to 'cherry pick' the best of the plant and will eat more of the plant
more quickly, so they do not lose a cob to the animal beside it. As the cows
graze the stalks, the ADF and NDF rise, so the alfalfa balances the ration with
the lower value stalks.

"Personally, I prefer the corn cob development to be mid-milk line at
freeze up, not having a harvestable dry cob. This creates a more palatable feed
source for the animals. The dry grain corn only creates problems with the threat
of founder. The less mature cobs have higher digestibility and feed utilization,"
says Elmy.

Varieties evaluated
The varieties grown in 2006 on Elmy's demonstration were Pickseed 2230, DKL
27-12, DKL 26-78, HL R208, BAXXOS RR, Pickseed ExPo RR, Pickseed 2601RR, Canamaize
533RR, Pickseed ExAlt, HL S007, Pickseed ExSile and Legend 517-77.

The Pickseed 2230, DKL 27-12, DKL 26-78 are grain varieties that are marketed
as dual purpose. Grazing wise, Elmy says the cows were not overly impressed
and left too much stalk standing due to a thicker rind layer.

The Canamaize grew about five feet tall (1.5 metres) with small stubby cobs.
It took the cows a couple of paddocks to acquire a taste for it and when they
did, they cleaned up the strip well.

The BAXXOS RR and Pickseed 2601RR had the best early season vigour, along with
the Pickseed ExAlt. The Pickseed ExPo was seeded on the summerfallow strip.
The summerfallow was a significant negative to the corn plant development. This
strip took a longer time to reach the stages of the two plots beside it. In
the end, it was as tall as the other two varieties on either side, the BAXXOS
and 2601RR.

The Legend 51-77 was a bit of a surprise to Elmy. It is a dual purpose variety,
but the cows normally went to that paddock first to graze. They left what Elmy
considers an intermediate amount of standing stalk, but were definitely drawn
to it.

The other variety that Elmy grew in 2006 was Fleet. It is a sweet corn variety
of which he grew four acres for table corn sales. It does not, though, have
potential for grazing because it costs $500 per bag and it only grows four feet

Grazing with borrowed cows
Elmy turned the cows in on September 26. Wayne and Carol Gibson of Lonesome
Acres once again agreed to allow him to borrow their cows for a few months.
Early into the grazing in the fall of 2006, the cows did not clean the corn
up as much as was expected. The grain corn had the cobs stripped, while the
leaves and the nine foot tall corn were chewed down to about three foot stalks.

"It took me a while to realize that the warm open fall encouraged the
cows to roam more. Once it got cooler, the cows cleaned up the stalks better
after they moved into new paddocks," Elmy explains. "Plus, they cleaned
up the better grazing varieties they had previously grazed."

The freezing rain Elmy received in October 2006 knocked off a fair amount of
leaf matter and snapped off most of the corn stalks about two-thirds of the
way up the stalk. It did not hurt the grazing potential, but did reduce some
of the shelter effect.

The other weather challenge that occurred was 12 inches of snow that was received
in two back-to-back storms in the late fall. Grazing was not impeded, but the
effect of the electric fence was nullified. Many people that were swath grazing
and corn grazing complained about the cows walking through the fence. The snow
packed in and created an insulator for the cow under the hoof. Elmy then eliminated
the cross-fence December 1, and the cows had access to the rest of the field
as uncontrolled grazing. With colder weather, he found the cows are less likely
to roam through and grab only cobs.

Since Lonesome Acres is a purebred Black Angus operation and calve early in
January, the cows were on the corn until the end of December 2006. In the spring,
the cows and calves will return to the corn field for spring grazing once the
field firms up. They will be supplemented with good quality alfalfa hay to ensure
proper nutrition.

In 2006, the highest yielding canola field on Elmy's farm was the field where
the corn was grown the year before. The field was also one of the lowest for
fertilizer requirements. The plan for 2007 is to put the corn on a field of
alfalfa that is being taken out of hay production. In preparation, Elmy has
mowed a cut of alfalfa back to the land and had the re-growth shallowly disced
in October. He will soil test and then band the land with recommended amounts
of phosphate and potash as per Western Ag Lab recommendations, dribble band
nitrogen, and seed into it. New genetics from Pickseed, Hyland, Legend, Canamaize
and Maizex will be tried in 2007.

Cowboy economics
As for economics, corn is relatively expensive to put in the ground but cheap
to feed. An expense estimate on cropland for seed, fertilizer and herbicide
is $120 to $140 per acre. Elmy says that growing corn on manured ground or on
a field where the cattle have been feeding all winter can help cut the cost
down to $60 to $70 per acre.

Elmy's rule of thumb for planning acres is working with 200 grazing days per
acre. This means that the number of days the cows will be on the acre is based
on the number of animals. So for 100 head, one acre will last for two days.
For 40 head, it will last five days. Given this number, which Elmy says will
be conservative for most years, 200 grazing days at 35 pounds of dry matter
consumption per day is 7000 pounds of dry matter per acre. This works out to
$0.02 per pound of feed using the $140 of inputs per acre, or $0.70 per cow
per day.

However, like anything that depends on Mother Nature, production varies. In
2004 when there was the early frost, Elmy ended up with 100 grazing days per
acre, which ended with $1.20 per cow per day cost or $0.034 per pound dry matter.
The $1.20 is still less expensive than conventional bale feeding cows in a corral
system, which in 2004 was estimated at $1.75 he says.

On the other hand, Elmy says that Ralph and Donalda Strand at Preeceville,
Saskatchewan have grazed the same ground with corn for five years and were getting
400 grazing days per acre on $75 cash cost, which works out to $0.19 per cow
per day or $0.005 per pound of dry matter. Swath grazing costs tend to be in
the $0.75 to $1.00 per cow per day, for 75 to 125 grazing days per acre.

"Would I suggest to seed all of your feed acres to corn? No," Elmy
says emphatically. "It is a risk management tool that you can use to get
the cheapest feed sources to get your animals through the winter."

Elmy explains that the benefit of late fall/early winter grazing is the ease
of gaining animal condition. People that graze corn earlier in the winter before
it is cold have commented on how well the cows look and score. He explains that
it is easier to feed animals all winter if they go into the season in good condition.
Conversely, it is more expensive to try to squeak them through the fall and
then try to gain body condition during late winter or early spring.

"Corn production can be economical and can fit in most situations. Do
not be discouraged by the 'experts' saying that it cannot be done," says
Elmy. He cautions that prairie corn growers cannot grow corn based on Iowa or
Ontario agronomics and practices because of differences in climate. Rather,
he suggests using good agronomics developed for grazing corn in western Canada.

Start with a proper soil test to see what nutrients are available. Find out
what varieties are available, which are palatable and use recommended seeding
rates. Try a couple of varieties, an earlier one and a higher heat unit variety.
Elmy's recommendation for first timers is to stick with the extra leafy and
RoundUp Ready varieties from Maizex, Pickseed and Hyland, although varieties
like BAXXOS and Pickseed 2601RR worked well for him. Elmy also says that the
Roundup Ready system for corn is great and will reduce wrecks from poor weed
control. Once a grower has the rest of the agronomics for corn figured out,
then the conventional varieties could be the next step. Finally, he suggests
that if livestock producers do not have seeding equipment, they could work with
a grain farm neighbour to have it custom seeded.

"Talk to people that have done it, how they did it and what they would
do differently," says Elmy. 


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