In a roundtable format at the annual Northeast Grazing and Livestock Conference, producers discussed shade strategies for grazing livestock.

“I think the context for this conversation comes most directly from any livestock graziers’ experience where if there is a tree, and it’s a hot day, livestock will often seek that. I’ve driven by many places where that lone tree in the pasture has trampled literally to death over years or decades,” said Steve Gabriel. Gabriel, owner of Wellspring Forest Farm in Trumansburg, NY, grazes Katahdin sheep on 35 acres.

Brett Chedzoy observed that any time it’s over 60º, livestock begin to seek out shade, regardless of animal type or color. Chedzoy’s family operates Angus Glen Farm in Watkins Glen, NY, raising 100 cow/calf pairs per year. The farm grazes about 500 acres and relies entirely on trees for shade.

Chedzoy, also a forester, blurs the lines between pasture and forest by employing silvopasture techniques. For example, some of the pasture acreage is a mixed conifer plantation planted in the 1980s. Over time, Chedzoy has thinned the plantation, opening up the canopy, which has encouraged the growth of cool season grasses.

“We’re always looking to utilize those trees in a way that’s beneficial to both the animals and the trees to provide shade,” he said.

Gabriel also relies on silvopasture techniques to create shade for the sheep. During Central New York’s drought of 2016, Gabriel didn’t have enough regrowth in his open pastures for a second grazing. Out of necessity, he started grazing on the marginal edges of the open pastures, which were overgrown with brush. Looking at Google Earth, he discovered that this abandoned farmland on the edges of the pastures accounted for 20% of the land base.

According to Gabriel, Katahdin sheep have balanced preference for woody materials as well as pasture and legumes. The sheep thrived in that first season, despite the drought. Gabriel said, “We had this moment where we realized the ecosystem had all the things the animals wanted. In addition to being a viable food source in a very dry time, it was also shade and shelter.”

Gabriel’s long-term goal is to manage the marginal ground so that the sheep always have access to it. As he works to further develop his fencing infrastructure, he also relies on portable shelters called Port-A-Huts to provide shade and protection from the elements. These structures can be stacked, and Gabriel moves them with tractor forks.

Shade strategies for pastured livestock

Brett Chedzoy observed that any time it’s over 60º, livestock begin to seek out shade, regardless of animal type or color. Photo courtesy of Brett Chedzoy

Not all producers are fortunate enough to have the natural shade that forested and woody ecosystems provide. Tyler Brennan of American Farmland Trust shared his experience using a portable structure to provide shade for a herd of dairy cattle. It’s called a Shade Haven and it looks like a large umbrella on wheels. They come in two different sizes; Brennan used the larger style, which can accommodate up to 45 cows. He used it in a windy location with steep slopes and said it withstood steady 35 mph winds with gusts up to 55 mph.

Brennan said that most of the time he didn’t need to fully collapse the structure to move it. He took the destabilized structure and moved it to a different paddock with a utility vehicle. Another benefit of the structure is that it’s a good way to deposit manure in different sections of a pasture.

“The cows absolutely loved this thing. It had a scratcher on it. It had an oiler on it. I put a mineral bucket on there. They’re coming and going. They’re not always underneath it – really just using it when they need it,” Brennan said. The biggest drawback of the Shade Haven, according to Brennan, is the cost.

Phelan O’Connor of Pigasus Meats also relies on the built environment to provide shade for his pastured layers and hogs. The farm is on the Champlain Islands of Vermont, and his pasture system has no tree coverage.

O’Connor houses 2,100 layers in two portable 20-by-40-foot structures manufactured by HenGear. He adds a shade cloth to each of the plastic covered high tunnel-style structures. To expand the shade coverage, he plans to add an outrigger system to each side of the tunnel, which will extend the shade by 14 feet on each side. He would also like to add a misting system.

“I tend to think about our production with the chickens the way you would with dairy. Every little stressor, every little event, you’re going to see that impact in your production about two or three days later,” O’Connor said. For example, during peak laying season in early summer, O’Connor expects a 92% lay rate. With only a few days of extreme heat, he can see that drop to an 86% lay rate.

For the hogs, he uses simple homemade lean-to structures to provide shade. They’re framed with two-by-fours and have a metal shed roof. He used tarps at first but grew frustrated with the winds tearing them off. Each one can shelter about 14 market size hogs. It’s important for him to keep these structures simple and easy to drag because the hogs must be moved frequently to prevent soil compaction and damage to the pastures.

According to Gabriel, research has been done on the loss of productivity of livestock in confinement systems due to excessive heat. Although less scientific research exists about the impact of heat and a lack of shade on pastured livestock, anecdotally, the panel of producers agreed that a lack of shade impacts production on their farms. This includes a reduction in egg production and insufficient ruminant weight gain.

Though providing shade may prove an expense, it’s an obligation that Chedzoy believes must be met, whether by using forests or structures.

“I always think it’s important to pay attention to costs, but what price can you put on animal comfort and welfare?” Chedzoy said.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin