Craig Lehr along with his family, owns and operates Short Grass Ranches, a third-generation operation consisting of a 7,000-head backgrounding feedlot, 1,200-head cow-calf ranch as well as both irrigated and dryland farmland for feed and cash crop production. Short Grass Ranches is located near Medicine Hat, so drought and feed shortages have been a reality in recent years.

One of the ways Lehr is working to combat challenges due to drought is by using cover crops on irrigated land. This allows the family to grow a second feed crop on their silage land as well as helps with soil health and fertility. Tillage radishes are added to the mixture to reduce soil compaction often caused by silage and manure trucks.

Lehr has always liked the idea of double cropping on their irrigated land and has tried it in the past but struggled to get the second crop off and dried down before winter set in. Switching to grazing has allowed them to produce a second crop without having to harvest it mechanically.

Cereal silage is grown first to be used as winter feed. As soon as that silage has been harvested, feedlot manure is spread on the land and a forage mixture of winter wheat or triticale and forage radishes along with some brassicas is seeded and then irrigated.

When cows come home in the fall, they are turned out on the cover crop mixture to graze. Lehr doesn’t use any cross fencing and allows the cattle to graze the entire field. He thinks that between the number of cattle on the field, the native dryland corners, and the stage of the crop, cattle seem to self-select. He has yet to have any problems with bloat or cattle selectively grazing only the highest-quality or preferred plants or plant parts.

Unlike traditional crops, Lehr says the family doesn’t seed the winter wheat for survivability. What they are looking for is a crop that cattle can graze in the fall so they seed the crop earlier than is recommended, at the end of July or beginning of August, to ensure there is adequate growth by the time they want to turn cows out onto it. If the crop does survive over the winter, they consider that a bonus. In the spring if it looks like the winter wheat has survived, they will fertilize and then harvest the crop for silage later in the summer.

By maintaining a constant cover on their soils, Lehr has noticed an increase in the soil nutrient profile and amount of organic matter. He also notes that tillage radishes have made a big difference as the root systems go deep into the soil, which has helped to reduce soil compaction.

On the feedlot side, installing a low-stress handling system has had a major impact.

“It turned sorting cattle from something no one wanted to do to a job that no one minded doing,” says Lehr.

With their old system cattle movement was slow, prod use and yelling were higher than the family would like, and every time the cattle had to be brought through the system they were more reluctant. The ability to sort cattle only three ways caused increased re-sorting and frustrations. By adding a new Bud box with a Daniels Alley and five-way sort system out the front that was all tied to a remote-controlled hydraulic system, Lehr was able to greatly reduce both the time and labour required for processing and re-sorting.

The new chute system is much more open than the previous one and allows workers to see cattle and how they are moving. It also enables the cattle to see where they are going and move more smoothly through the system. Both prod use and yelling have been reduced by 95 per cent, Lehr estimates, and cattle are much calmer before, during, and after processing.

Backgrounding and marketing even groups of feeder calves requires additional sorting through the feeding period which involves cattle being moved back through the system to get a good visual of the animal. The system is set up so that one person can run both the hydraulic system and sort gates and can sort into up to five different pens. The open design of the system provides the opportunity to fully assess each animal and allows for sorting more ways which has reduced the number of times sorting needs to be done. The new setup not only reduces stress for the cattle but also for the workers using it.