Quack Addicts

Cattle rotationally grazed on quack grass pastures fertilized by hog manure pay off big for this Canadian producer.

Quack grass. It's the bane of northern U.S. crop farmers — an extremely competitive nuisance that also goes by the names of couch grass, quake grass, dog grass, creeping wheat grass and a lot worse. But Canadian Robert Krentz likes quack grass. In fact, he works hard to promote its growth on his Grunthal, Manitoba, grazing operation.

Krentz used to have forages like alfalfa, timothy and birds-foot trefoil, but he prefers the native grass — quack grass. He stopped fighting it in 1995 and has since encouraged it to take over.

“Quack grass can be managed, and it can provide a high quality, dependable forage supply,” Krentz says. “We've been averaging gains of 1.8 to 2.0 lbs./day. One group, in 2001, produced 333 lbs. of gain in 165 days of grazing. That's 2 lbs./day.”

While forage experts who work with Krentz say the system works well for him, they believe producers should look at more diversity in grazing forages.

“If you've got different grasses for different conditions, you're going to have a much more productive system, overall,” says Wally Happychuk. An agricultural representative with Manitoba Agriculture and Food at Vita, Manitoba, Happychuk has observed Krentz's changeover from the start, and is one of several government and university personnel who have studied the unique system.

“Krentz has a preference for quack grass, but some tame forages are excellent, too,” Happychuk says. “Tall fescue looks really promising, and orchard grass has been good, too.”

A “Feedlot” Grazing Style

Krentz buys feeder cattle in late winter/early spring at the Grunthal Livestock Auction Mart, which he co-owns. He organizes the cattle into groups, building nine “packages,” usually 600 feeders each, to build attractive buys later for buyers.

He maintains them for 4-6 weeks in pens on his farmyard. When the pasture is “up” in May, he turns them out to graze. By the time grazing season is done, he's already sold them to commercial feedlots and just sets up a delivery schedule.

This southeast corner of the Canadian Prairies often gets more than 20 in./season of rain. For the past few years, Krentz has had more rain than his pastures need.

A highly competitive nuisance grass, quack grass might normally be expected to stop growing by late June, and be followed by poor grazing at best. But Krentz says he's found a way around that. With high fertility and a rotational grazing system, plus lots of rainfall, his quack grass remains lush through mid-summer and into early October.

His only concern is that it might become root-bound, so he aerates once each summer to “break the root system and loosen the soil so it can produce a thicker matt of grass.”

Paying for 100-lbs./acre of nitrogen could cut sharply into Krentz's margin. But he gets it free, supplied at no charge by the owners of 43 new pig barns that have operations on those same pastures.

Each summer, about 10,000 gals./acre of liquid hog manure are top-dressed on the quack grass. His arrangement with the pig barn owner works like this:

Krentz sells a quarter-section where the barn is to be built, and provides a lifetime caveat to the owner for spreading rights on the other three quarters of the section. In return, Krentz obtains rights to all the manure the barn can produce for up to 49 years, plus access to the quarter he sold.

The first results in 1995 convinced Krentz he'd stumbled onto a good idea. He recalls, “We used to cut hay before we put yearlings on there, but it took 10 days of drying before I could bale that hay.”

A quack grass trial that year fertilized with hog manure gave him a baled return of 4½ tons/acre. That was better than he'd done with anything previously.

Krentz says the quack grass has 20% protein if cattle graze it at a young stage. But, he adds, the quack grass program wouldn't work if his cattle were free to graze without restrictions. To manage that, Krentz has each package of heifers or steers on its own section of pasture with eight separate paddocks.

Each herd orients itself around a central, fenced, watering system that serves all eight paddocks on the section. Each paddock has it's own gate into the watering area. Krentz also has built a fly-protection oiler on wheels, the width of the gate, for each watering area.

“Center is their home,” Krentz says. “When it's hot in mid-day, all the cattle are in the center by the water. Once they're inside, we hook onto the oiler with an ATV and move it when we want to change paddocks.”

After a few moves, the feeders become “well trained” to the system, Krentz says. The stocking rate is about 1 acre/animal.

Three Keys to Success

Happychuk points to three keys that make Krentz's production system work.

  • The ability to manage the risk in buying and selling is one key factor.

    “Krentz is totally aware of what the Canadian dollar exchange rate can do to him,” Happychuk says. “When that margin is tight, you've got to be careful about what you're doing. There's a limit to how much the grassing program will offset a loss. He's really good at buying right and selling right, and using futures contracts to hedge or lock in prices.”

  • Using hog manure as his fertilizer source is the second key.

    “He's getting growth from first thing in spring until well into October. The hog manure is giving him a tremendous boost. Forage crops like grasses love fertilizer. As good as it is already, we're estimating that somewhere along the line he'll be able to double his carrying capacity through proper use of hog manure and grasses.”

  • His rotational grazing skills are the third factor.

Happychuk says Krentz has great skill in paddock management. He recognizes when his cattle need to move to a new paddock, for the sake of the pasture, and has simplified the whole system, he says.

Karin Wittenburg, a University of Manitoba forage researcher, says it's not surprising that the stands on Krentz's farm now contain significant amounts of quack grass. After all, quack grass is extremely competitive and, no doubt, has responded well to the application of hog manure.

“Although quack grass can be high in quality when managed properly, it's for the most part less productive than other grass species,” she says.

Wittenberg is working with Manitoba Agriculture to examine the effects of hog manure on the nutrient profile (energy, protein, macro- and micro-minerals) of a wide range of grass and legume species. Hog manure provides a wider range of nutrients to the soil than most inorganic fertilizer treatments, she says.