Winter grazing: a hot topic

C4-MR-1-Winter grazingby Tamara Scully

The University of Vermont’s “Across the Fence” television program is the longest running locally-produced program in the United States, and  is produced by the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension. The show recently featured Jenn Colby, Pasture Program Coordinator at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Colby, along with Vermont cattle farmer Bruce Hennessey and Jim Welch, UVM Professor Emeritus and beef cattle farmer, discussed winter beef cattle grazing.

“There is no standardized term for winter grazing,” Colby said. Winter grazing runs the gamut from bale grazing round hay bales in a barnyard to grazing stockpiled forages through snow cover in a rotational system. Successful grazing depends on a healthy animal, observation, and appropriate management response to every-changing conditions.
“Winter grazing through snow is not good for calves, it’s not good for lactating animals,” Welch said. Winter grazing healthy cows, who are in good condition before winter sets in is key. Animals need to be at the right maturity, and already have a good fat covering on them before being put on winter pasture.

“Daily management is absolutely essential,” Colby emphasized, no matter what type of winter grazing is practiced.

Feeding hay on pasture

Bale grazing can range from feeding round bales in a permanent winter pasture, or can include rotating the animals through paddocks, just as during the growing season. Bales can be strategically placed around the paddocks, to help evenly deposit manure on the fields.

Bales can also be rolled out flat, distributing the nutrients evenly, as cows spread out across the pasture to feed on the hay, rather than having the cows congregate around the bale. Hennessey, who farms 150 acres in Huntington, VT, at his Maple Wind Farms, and another 300 acres in Richmond, said that rolling out the bales gives “every cow a place at the table.” He uses lower quality hay in this feeding scheme, and any hay which isn’t eaten is eventually trampled into the soil, adding organic matter and increasing fertility.

Paddocks with stockpiled forage can be successfully grazed even with snow cover, Colby said. If snow cover is too great, keeping tabs on what is still available for grazing can be tricky. Feeding hay in the paddock will allow the animals to forage.

“But the challenge of snow on top of that stockpile is that you may not always know what’s there,” Colby said. “It’s really helpful and useful to have extra feed available, so that the cows can not only choose the stockpile, but they can also balance with stored feed as well.”

Forage is the primary feed for beef cattle, Welch said. Winter grazing allows them to forage as much as possible. Welch feels that cattle can effectively graze through 10 inches of snow. In his own herd, the cows look for hay after about six inches of snow. He’ll evaluate the available dry matter, and decide whether supplemental hay is warranted.

“The normal limitation is 10 inches of snow,” Welch said. “Beyond that, it is too much work for them to graze through,” and “at some point, you have to feed hay.” An ice crust which forms over snow can cause problems, he cautioned.

“Animals that lose weight, it takes more feed to get them back where they should be,” Welch said. “Constant surveillance, constant adjustment,” is key to successful winter grazing.

Cow comfort on winter pasture

“Ruminant animals provide a lot of heat themselves,” and can be quite content in cold temperatures, Colby said. Cows outdoors in cold temperatures will need more food, to continue with their metabolic processes and stay warm.
“These cows love being out,” Hennessey said. Winter grazing is “allowing the cows to go out and do what they naturally want to do.” Hennessey provides shelter from the wind, minerals and water, and keeps the cows on pasture year-round, supplementing stockpiled forages with hay bales. His winter pastures are a mix of cereal rye and rye grass, which grow in the late fall to provide lush stockpiled pastures.

“We’re doing some experiments to see how far we can go without feeding hay to our cattle,” Hennessey said. “The more you can extend your grazing season, the more economical it will be for your farm, and also the better it will be for your cows, particularly cows you are trying to grow for meat production.”

Signs of trouble include a hunched back, with feet close together, indicating that the animals may be suffering from cold, Welch said. Providing a winter shelter of some type, out of the wind, is needed. “If any animal looks cold, the system isn’t working.”

“Cows can be very healthy eating snow,” but it has to be the right kind of snow, she said. Even though cows can eat snow for their water needs, it takes more energy. The animals have to expend their energy to bring the snow up to body temperature, and this will have to be offset by increased feed availability, or they may lose body condition. A centralized watering system, protected from freezing, is recommended.

Public perception

The cows “love being out” in the cold temperatures, Hennessey said. “They do extremely well. They develop extremely hearty winter coats.”

But the non-farming public doesn’t necessarily know that, and can sometimes express concern that the animals’ welfare is in jeopardy.

“The perception may be that there’s not any food there,” Colby said, as concerned neighbors may not realize that stockpiled pasture forage is available under the snow. If the animals are moved every day, Colby said, it is a sign that the animals are being actively managed, and should reassure concerned citizens. Healthy cows on winter pastures will lay down, will be chewing and ruminating, and exhibit normal cow behaviors.

Colby recommends that producers provide the “opportunity for conversation.” Inviting the public to ask questions, so they can better understand the situation, is one way to alleviate any public misconceptions or concerns about winter grazing practices.

“Allowing the cows to do what they naturally want to do,” is what winter grazing is all about, Hennessey said.
“It’s not right for everyone, but it is right for many,” Colby said. Winter grazing is becoming more common across the nation, no matter the winter weather.

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