Winter cow conditioning year-long chore

Editor’s note: The following was written by Taylor Grussing, South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist, for the university’s iGrow website.

Corn residue can serve many purposes on cow/calf operations in the Upper Midwest, from grazing to bedding. However, it may be one of the most underutilized resources we can access to produce beef.

This year’s harvest is in full swing and yields are looking great; therefore, residue should be plentiful as we enter into the winter grazing period.

Producers looking for ways to decrease feed costs in the winter should utilize corn stalks as a grazing resource for mid-gestation cows. The combination of dropped ears, grain, husks and leaves provides an adequate ration for spring-calving cows, and can be managed to maintain body condition or even add weight with supplementation.

The amount of residue per acre is correlated to pounds of grain produced. However, the most palatable portion of residue (husks and leaves) makes up approximately 15 pounds of every bushel of corn. So if a field yields 150 bushels per acre, there would be 2,250 lbs. of husks and leaves available for grazing.

Similar to pasture, grazing recommendations of take half, leave half still stand. Therefore, after trampling, wind and waste disappearance, etc., there would be enough residue remaining on one acre to support a 1,300-lb. cow for a little more 30 days.

Managing residue grazing should always start with a walk through the field to identify any spills or large amounts of grain that need to be removed prior to grazing in order to decrease risk of acidosis. In addition, fences need be examined and water resources located to facilitate grazing from November to January and even longer if snowfall is limited over the winter.

Cross fencing can be utilized to facilitate strip grazing which will provide a more balanced ration for cattle over the winter. As the grain disappears, supplement cattle with a protein source to maintain proper rumen function and avoid decreased performance. Lastly, always provide mineral and salt to cattle while grazing stalks.

Grazing corn stalk residue can reduce both feed cost for cow/calf producers, but also save crop farmers time and money by decreasing time spent running equipment over the field to remove excess residue. If communication between cattle and crop operations is needed to set up a grazing agreement, start by asking and answering the following questions:

  • When grazing will start and end
  • Stocking rate
  • Fences and water availability
  • Management of fence/water/cattle

There is no one-size-fits-all rental agreement for grazing corn residue as it will vary by the needs of both parties. Recently, if water and fence are available, the cattle operator will pay anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per head per day for corn stalks based on yield. However, if no fence or water access is provided, a lower rate is realized to account for the cattle operator’s labor inputs.

Corn residue can also be rented on a per-acre basis, adjusted similarly for fence, water and labor. This method eliminates the stocking rate question, but has some risk in potential heavy snowfall may limit the amount of residue that can be removed.

Regardless, grazing residue should cease before the ground thaws or excessive moisture is experienced to avoid major soil disturbance and compaction.