We have returned to a slightly forgotten art of corn stalk grazing for our bred heifers as well as our dry cows.
I remember well using corn stalks for winter feed when I began farming on my own back around 1960. The minute we finished picking ear corn the bred heifers moved into the field and were blessed with ample feed for several days or weeks, depending on the size of the field and the weather. Yes, I can remember mud and challenges but I also know there were plenty of good grazing days, which could be most of the winter in milder winters.
The thing we didn’t use back then was break fencing and that has changed the quality of the feed that the animals now get on a regular basis.
The other issue that has changed is the ability to build quality perimeter fencing around a large area in a short period of time at relatively low cost. In the sixty’s most all fields had perimeter fencing, today that’s not the rule but it doesn’t have to be a detriment. In fact it may be an advantage as temporary high tensile fence can be built quickly and is adequate for animals, which are already familiar with it in grazing systems. If there are no fences, frequently the perimeter of the field is clear of weeds or trees. This makes it simpler to build high tensile, border fences around a large area, which then allows using poly wire to further reduce the area into smaller sections. It wasn’t uncommon for us to turn 30 or 40 heifers into an equal number of acres of cornstalk residue and leave them till they started complaining before moving them on to additional acres. Usually the feed was good for the first few days but as they scavenged and walked all the rows, much good feed was trampled, never to be considered as feed again. With break wire fencing we can protect a lot more feed from trampling before it is consumed. There is still risk of weather damage and feed that lays out in winter wet weather can soon become lower quality but we still shouldn’t overlook the potential of the feed that is there. We have the additional advantage of supplementing hay or other forages while the cows are out on cornstalk pasture with out the potential damage of winter trampling to quality pastures the next season.
I’ll share our system. We have a farm, which adjoins us, that is in continuous corn. The farmer’s practice in the past was to quickly turn the cornstalks into small pieces with a stalk shredder and them quickly plow or chisel the ground to make them part of the winter cover. After much coercion we convinced the adjoining farmer to allow us to experiment on a small acreage in 1997. I drove wooden corner post at each corner of the field and then strung 12.5 gauge high tensile wire around the field. We used fiberglass posts to support the wires and avoided areas of the field where excess effort was needed to get cattle coverage. A side note, he let us leave the corner posts for the next season and we just rolled up the wire for use the next year. Let me first say that this is not considered a safe practice, but I build a wire reel in the shop, which mounted on the back wheel of my old Farmall “H With wife Helen sitting on the seat of the tractor I just jacked up that one rear wheel with the reel and had her put the tractor in 1st gear. It was amazing how quickly the wire is re-rolled. I can then collapse the reel and store the wire ready to put it on my spinning jenny to unroll next season.
The farmer found that a quick disking in the spring, was all that was needed in 98 to get the field ready for corn again. He also expressed to me that he felt the corn in that field was better in the 98 crop year than the balance of his acres. If that wasn’t the case, then he must have liked the simplicity of planting the next year as well as the $0.25 per head per day we paid him for the use of the corn stalks.
We also were careful not to allow the animals to congregate in one area for an extended period. In 97 we didn’t have adequate acres to supply corn stalks for the whole winter so we only paid while the heifers were grazing stalks. Once it was necessary to supplement feed we no longer paid. He did allow us to keep the heifers on the acreage and we fed hay in wagons and moved them daily so that the compaction or waste manure in the areas wasn’t noticeable. The wagons we use have baskets inside which keep the bales away from the outside of the wagon. The cows don’t pull hay out of the wagon and then trample it around the wagon.
The following two winters less supplemental feed was needed, as he allowed us access to several more acres. He got more dollars from us but we needed a lot less dry hay to supplement the cows.
The animals must return to our farm for water and we do that once a day. That also gives us time to move the break wire to allow fresh stalks when they return. We usually allot from two to three days feed with each move. That way in every move the animals first find any missed ears, and then they select the shucks, followed by the stalks. Once they get to that level it is time to move the break again in about 24 hours.
Once the herd is dry in December we move them into the stalks as well. The acreage-needed daily expands significantly along with the daily cost but it is much less than feeding hay. The advantage of getting the animals off our pastureland during the non-growing season has reduced the winter damage to pastureland and lessened the amount of reseeding we need to do.
If you have your own cornstalks, or a neighbor that might be convinced to allow you to graze over winter, don’t pass up this opportunity to utilize some good quality winter-feed.