Dairy operations are expensive. Costs to build and maintain facilities, purchase feed, provide proper ventilation, purchase bedding and dispose of manure add up quickly.
“It can be somewhat discouraging to new dairy farmers,” said Dr. Brad Heins at University of Minnesota-West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, MN, “a reduced input dairy (model) can be a way for new farmers to get involved without a lot of equity.”
Out wintering can be a successful method for managing a reduced input dairy herd. “The animals tend to stay relatively clean and you reduce bedding costs in out wintering systems,” he added, “but you must be able to respond to quickly changing weather conditions.”
In the webinar, titled Considerations for Out-Wintering the Organic Dairy Herd, which was hosted by eOrganic, Heins shared his results in out wintering University of Minnesota’s certified organic dairy herd.
Necessities for out wintering
Successful out wintering requires planning and preparation. “Visit farms that are successfully out wintering their herd,” he suggested. Learn what is working for those farms and what has presented challenges.
While out wintering requires fewer inputs, it does not equate to maintenance free. The animals must be observed for overall health and well-being frequently and adjustments must be made as needed. “One of the big things is that you will have to adjust to the changing weather conditions,” Heins said. As temperatures decrease, the animals will require more feed to maintain body condition and production levels.
Before you turn the cows out it’s important to establish:
• A secure perimeter fence
• An area where the herd is easily observable
• A shelter from wind. Trees and/or a ravine can provide a natural wind block. If the property is absent of trees, you will need to build a small structure
• A fresh, defrosted drinking supply
• Access to a pasture, ideally a flat space, that will limit runoff during spring melting
• A place to move the herd if one area becomes too muddy
“When spring comes you will have to be able to react quickly to move the herd,” he emphasized, “muddy lots harbor diseases.”
Then it’s time to decide if a straw pack or compost barn will work best for your herd.
Straw pack or compost barn
Cows that are out wintered can be kept on a straw pack or in a compost barn.
For Heins’ study the herd was divided into two groups. Approximately 80 cows were maintained on a straw pack were kept in an easily accessible, open lot. Clean straw was regularly spread in a 40 x 80 foot area with a manure spreader away from feeding areas.
The pack provided cows a place to lie down, protect their udders and stay warm. A wind break was also available to shield the herd from driving winds. “We adjusted the bedding schedule in inclement weather to continue adding dry bedding after it snowed,” he said.
The other half of the herd was kept in a compost barn, which is a loose housing situation with sawdust or wood shavings added for bedding. The cows were still able to go outdoors, but in a more confined area and within close proximity to the barn.
The bedding was stirred twice a day to help breakdown the manure. “In really cold weather the manure can build up quite quickly around the bunk, but for the most part, the cows were comfortable,” he said.
The important question was, which herd “fared” better in hygiene, maintaining body weight, condition and milk production. Comparing two winters, 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, Heins found that there was not a noticeable difference in body condition or milk production between the cows in both systems.
“The body weight was a little higher in the straw pack cows, and body condition was slightly less, but not noticeably different,” he said. Production was nearly identical. Cows kept in the compost barn recorded 34 pounds of milk per cow and the straw pack cows produced 33 pounds per cow.
The cows were also scored on hygiene every two weeks. “The tail, upper and lower legs scored about the same,” he said, “Cows in the compost barn were a little dirtier in the belly and udder, but it was not a big difference.”
Bedding costs illustrated the most significant difference between the two systems. Cows on the straw pack required 213,561 pounds of straw, costing $14,949 (per year or after two years). The animals in the compost barn used 375,187 pounds of bedding costing $16,883. “Organic straw is more expensive, but there are less costs in an organic straw pack than a compost barn,” he added.
Once spring arrived, Heins also wanted to know if one method produced more stable flies than other. “Stable flies are a significant pest for dairy farms and they come from organic bedding,” he said, “studies show straw produces more flies than shavings.”
To test this theory, Heins placed fly traps near the compost barn and in the lots near the straw packs after the cows had been moved to new areas. “A lot less flies came out of the compost barns compared to the straw pack,” he said, “one pack produced significantly more fly counts than others.”
Take home message
Housing cows under the stars for all or part of the winter may not be for every dairy owner, but for those who decide to give it a try, may experience less health issues and reduced input expenses for their dairy. Out-wintering requires special attention to the cows to ensure they maintain a healthy weight and good body condition score.
To listen to the webinar in full visit www.extension.org