Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Those driving through rural Iowa in late fall may notice a common trend. In many fields, shortly after rows of corn and soy are reduced to stubble and stalks, animals move in to graze on the remains.
Some professionals — including the authors of one ISU study — call this practice “foraging,” others call it field grazing. Some farmers said they preferred the term “putting them on the field.” Whatever the term, those who turn their livestock loose on their crop land say it drastically improves their bottom line.
"It’s a very, very inexpensive way to feed the cows, for as long as mother nature allows us,“ said Dan Berdo, who raises cattle south of Washington. ”If you figure a bail of hay weighs 1,800 lbs., and it’s worth $120, you can figure the math. That bail of hay will feed 60 cows for one day. We run about 225 cows, so that gives you a little perspective for every day we don’t have to hay them. It’s a lot of money.“
The only down side is the increased need to monitor those fields. Producers need to ensure their animals still have access to nutrients and drinkable water, and have to maintain fenced perimeters. That means not every field is suitable, and those that are often need maintenance.
Berdo’s method of monitoring the food source is to bring in feed as the season stretches on, a way to check cows’ ability to forage on their own.
“We’ll take some straight hay out to them and kind of see how hungry they are, take their temperature,” he said. “Once they start cleaning up the hay pretty well, then we’ll start feeding them … they’re not getting anything from grazing at that point.”
A heavy snowfall can end foraging season early if it fully blocks the ground. Otherwise, the time any given herd takes to pick a field clean varies by number of animals and size of the field. It’s different for every operation.
Despite their size, cows don’t compact the soil too much unless left out after the spring thaw, according to Berdo.
“Any compaction that they do cause, if it does get a little muddy, will be taken out by freezing and thawing in the winter time,” he said. “February and March, as the frost does start to come out and the ground does get softer, we will shut them up tighter into a smaller area.”
For other animals, the soil compaction math can be more complicated. Travis Friese’s family grows row crops along County Road G36 north of Washington, and lets their flock of sheep onto the fields after harvest.
Doing so requires a little more monitoring of soil conditions. Too wet, and the animals will start to leave tracks, despite their size.
“Sheep walk in a line, so they make trails all throughout the field, and then I’ll bounce over that next year with the planter if they make a rut,” Friese said. “You don’t want them out there when it’s too wet, but the snow right now is fine. If it rains for a week straight … that’s it.”
For sheep, Friese said producers needed to be cautious about what was left in the field. Spilled grain piles from harvest time can present a problem if they make food too accessible.
“You clean them up before you turn the animals loose,” he said. “A sheep will sit there and eat corn until it falls over and dies, it will literally over eat … but if they’re scavenging for it, they won’t.”
Keeping track of the sheeps’ food source takes a little more observation from the producer. Erica Friese, Travis Friese’s wife, chores the animals while they’re in the field. She regularly checks the ground to ensure there’s still enough grain and plant matter to go around.
“You’re seeing how much grass is left in the water ways, driving around the cornstalks and seeing how much corn is left in the ground, how many husks and stuff are left to eat,” she said. “Once it’s just the stalk, they really won’t eat a whole lot after that.”