The Northeast Grazing & Livestock Conference took place during winter, but one panel discussion focused on keeping your livestock cool during summer heat. This summer, there has been unprecedented heat – and promises that in the future this heat will be unrelenting unless extreme measures are taken to counteract decades of climate damage.
The panel discussion featured Steve Gabriel of Wellspring Forest Farm in New York, a Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist of agroforestry and specialty mushroom production; Phelan O’Connor, owner of Pigasus Meats in Vermont; Brett Chedzoy, owner of Angus Glen Farm LLC in New York, a CCE forester; and Tyler Brennan, land protection project manager at American Farmland Trust.
Research into the benefits from shade is primarily focused on feedlot situations, which are far different from pasture-based systems, Gabriel said. But grazers’ observations and experience have continually demonstrated the value of shade on pasture.
Chedzoy utilizes silvopasture to provide shade to his farm’s 100 cow/calf pairs, which graze in 500 acres, about half of which are silvopastures. He’s observed that once temperatures climb into the mid-60s, livestock look for shade, no matter the color, the genetics or the species. It’s in their nature to find relief from heat.
While it is important to match the genetics of your animals to environment on your farm, and to selectively cull animals that are not able to perform in your system, shade is necessary from an animal welfare standpoint.
While animals are subjected to all types of stress, heat stress is a “pretty easy one to address. Move them to shade,” Chezoy said.
Wooded areas which are thinned to remove all but the highest-quality trees allow cool season grasses to grow beneath their canopies. Livestock graze these grasses just like any pasture but do so under the shade of the trees’ canopy in a silvopasture setting.
In open fields, trees can be planted plantation-style to introduce shade and to serve as fodder and shelter for livestock.
Gabriel grazes Katahdin sheep on his farm, which comprises 30 acres of owned and leased grazing land, which is now a 50/50 mix of woody brush and open pasture.
Gabriel wanted an animal that “was tolerant of the wide range of temperatures” found at this Finger Lakes region farm. The wide palate foraging of the Katahdin breed made sense for his land. The breed is genetically inclined to consume a diversity of forages, he said.
He’s learned to incorporate the wooded edges of his fields into the grazing plan. Prior to doing so, a severe drought year had left him with no pasture forages. He’s found ways to allow the sheep into the neglected, overgrown field edges, to graze these marginal woody areas. Katahdins prefer woody browse to pasture forages.
“The ecosystem now has everything the animals wanted,” including shelter, shade and nutritious forage, he said. Slowly creating these spaces over time is “beneficial for the forest habitat as well as our grazing animals.”
Gabriel has planted black locust into some of his pasture – a fast-growing tree that can spread, but grazing can help contain that. It is a nutritional fodder, with leaves similar in nutrients to alfalfa. He attempts to select tree species to plant that have harder bark at a young age, and that grow above the browse line quickly, so that the animals can graze the area sooner rather than later. Without the impact of the animals, the pasture suffers and the work to maintain it is time consuming, and not economically beneficial.
Simple metal Port-A-Hut structures, which cost less than $1,000 each, have been useful in providing some relief and shade, but it can get hot inside the structures.
Brennan has utilized a structure known as the Shade Haven for his cows, which grazed on open pasture on the Massachusetts coast. The pasture is very windy, and these umbrella-like structures are designed to withstand 35 mph winds, plus stronger gusts. They are readily portable in a tow-behind manner with a utility vehicle and can be put up or taken down by one person in just a minute or two. His Shade Haven structures had a cow scratcher, a mineral bucket and an oiler incorporated too, and the cows liked utilizing it.
The cows “are not always underneath it. It’s really just using it when they need it,” Brennan said.
The structures were approximately $20,000, but there are numerous grants that can be used to add shade structures to pastures, Brennan said. He’s also made do-it-yourself moveable hoop house structures to provide shade for pastured poultry, with good success.
O’Connor has experience with portable shelter for his pastured laying hens. The HenGear portable pasture chicken coop he uses is a kit you assemble yourself. He has modified his 20-by-48-foot hoop house structure a bit after some trial and error. The cost was about $10,000 each, and after five years he still has a few more years to go before he’ll need to replace the plastic covering.
He was moving the structures every day, but the modifications have added extra shaded areas for the hens to roam, and he now moves them three times a week.
“For us, these chicken houses were worth every penny,” he said. “Every little stressor…you’re going to see that impact in your production two or three days later.”
He documented a drop in daily egg laying from 92% to 86% of the hens during the peak lay months of June and July prior to providing the shade structure. With the shade available, there has been no production drop. The chickens won’t eat enough protein to keep up production if they are heat stressed, he said.
“As we get into these hotter spells and more volatile weather patterns, we’re just trying to maximize shade and spread these birds out, so they can stay nice and cool, and keep their egg production up,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor also has built timber frame lean-to-type structures with tin roofs to keep his pigs shaded. He’s found that allowing pigs to wallow increases their ability to forage, and that pigs who are covered with mud will forage farther from the wallow or shelter and will root less. He’s working on making wallows less detrimental to the pasture by establishing wallows in areas where the nutrients which build up can be allowed to naturally spread to other fields to provide fertility.
Providing shade can also mean better weight gain and larger litters as well, O’Connor said.
Economic considerations for providing shade to grazing livestock, including the cost of any shelter or abatement measures, as well as the potential benefits in terms of animal health and wellbeing, and animal performance and productivity, are important factors. But finding a shady solution that works on an individual farm is more than a financial decision. Animal welfare is paramount, and grazing livestock need to be protected from heat stress.
“I feel shade is extremely important in many ways to the animals. What price can you put on animal welfare and comfort?” Chedzoy asked.
The complete session, “Fifty Shades of Graze,” can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=hGf10LBGFD8.
by Tamara Scully