The sun finished setting a couple hours ago on what turned out to be yet another green Christmas for most of the Northeast as I wrote this. Despite this, I’m not writing about global warming or climate change. According to the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) division of the National Weather Service (NWS), during this autumn, for the first time in four years, an El Niño assumed climate center stage, heading into winter 2023-24. That El Niño event drives the outlook for warmer-than-average temperatures for the northern tier of the continental U.S., according to CPC.

Crop Comments: Benefiting from winter’s cold stressThat division of the NWS released its winter outlook for the U.S. on Oct. 19. The agency’s forecasters project a 75% – 85% chance that we will see a “strong” El Niño throughout winter. There is even a 30% chance that this will exceed a 2.0º C increase during the winter just beginning. Climate scientists said such an occurrence would put ocean temperatures on a par with some of the strongest El Niños on record. The report predicts drier-than-average conditions across the northern U.S., especially in the High Plains and near the Great Lakes.

El Niño events are indicated by sea surface temperature (SST) increases of more than 0.9º F (0.5º C) for at least five successive three-month spans. (A strong El Niño is defined as surpassing a 1.0º C increase.) This SST is measured in the east-central region of the equatorial Pacific. The baseline for these comparisons is what average SST would be for that location at that time of year during the preceding five-year period.

According to CPC, El Niño events usually include drier-than-normal conditions “common in western New York and Pennsylvania. As storms often move up the coast during El Niño winters, the Eastern Seaboard generally experiences above-normal precipitation.”

According to a spokesperson from the Global Resilience Institute, “During an El Niño pattern, winter season means the chances for warmer-than-average temperatures across the northern states increase while conditions in the Northeast will be wetter than in the West and Midwest. But that doesn’t mean people in New England and other northern states should keep their snow shovels in storage. In places like Boston or the Northeast in general, just because temperatures will be warmer in general doesn’t mean we will not have one or two fairly intense snowstorms.”

With the idea that winter will, at some point, really behave like winter, here are some feeding management pointers geared to finding a good spot for lower quality roughages in the diets of ruminants:

Due to a fairly widespread dry spell during May/June 2023, first cutting yields in the Northeast were commonly less than hoped for. Therefore, many meadows that hadn’t been harvested at all in 2022 were baled during summer 2023. This type of hay often earns the title “heifer hay” or “dry cow hay” (described as “at least better than snowballs”).

The organic hay situation is something I monitor closely. There’s a lot of hay that’s certified organic, but it’s organic by default. This means that the grower didn’t feed the soil any forbidden inputs, because that person didn’t feed the soil anything! Animals fed that kind of hay are generally voracious mineral consumers, rarely performing well on that forage.

The lack of high-quality roughages in the Northeast often forces local hay-deficient farmers to shop for far-away forages grown on deep well-irrigated meadows in the West. These hay sellers consistently test their feeds so that the buyer knows what they’re purchasing. Once the hay arrives at the end of its 1,500- or 2,000-mile journey, its new owners can do their own analysis and compare those results to what the seller sent in advance of the shipment. From what I’ve seen, very few local hay growers are testing the forages that they’re selling to nearby farmers.

So how can we best utilize this less-than-perfect hay crop? Winter itself can answer that question. A major benefit of cold weather is that extra fibrous feeds tend to be more palatable to (or at least more appreciated by) otherwise shivering ruminants. During extreme cold, cattle owners often complain that animals are guzzling down forages at higher rates than they had planned on. I tell them that during really cold weather these bovines – in addition to producing milk – are mobile furnaces.

Cold weather is the best time to feed more fibrous (hence lower energy) roughage to ruminants. My logic here is that if they can generate more body warmth from digesting this fiber, this will lower the extent to which they must tap into energy otherwise destined for milk production.

I’ll now address the body-warming aspects of lower-quality feeds.

Cornell Animal Science Professor F.B. Morrison discussed heat increment in his 1959 edition of “Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding.” He wrote that it’s easy to envision the energy jaws require to chew food. But less visible are the workings of digestive juices, plus the increased work of the heart and lungs during the dynamic process called rumination. Let me quote that scientist:

“There are losses of energy through the heat produced through the bacterial action upon carbohydrates. The energy expended in all these procedures takes the form of heat, and it may help to warm the body, if sufficient heat is not being produced elsewhere in the body.”

Morrison also wrote that a speeding up of the body processes takes place, a development which always follows the ingestion and digestion of food. At the peak of this digestive activity, more heat is produced than at other times, an event which occurs in all animals, especially ruminants. When humans are chilly and eat something, we soon feel noticeably warmer. If we eat too much in hot weather, we suffer even more from heat. Scientists refer to this energy liberation in ruminants as heat increment, which is a plus in cold weather – and more of a liability in hot weather.