Year-round outdoor cattle considerations

by Tamara Scully

“Livestock can handle the cold if they’re acclimated,” Nancy Glazier, of the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crop Team, said during the 2022 Catskills Regional Agriculture Conference. She also reminded attendees that non-farming neighbors often do not realize this, and it can be a frequent cause for animal welfare complaints. “That neighbor relation, that education piece” is imperative.

Feeding in Winter

Providing adequate amounts of fresh water on winter pastures is vital. If hauling water, easy access to do so even in snowy or muddy weather is important. Energy-free fountains (where water comes out of a frost-free hydrant, is stored in a reservoir in the ground to keep from freezing and balls on top of the waterer keep the surface from freezing) are a way of maintaining a fresh water supply.

“That water component is really what drives the intake,” Glazier said. “It’s the most important nutrient you can provide your animals.”

Methods of keeping the area around the waterers from becoming too muddy and reducing compaction around the tank are needed. Spilled hay, bedding or even wood panels placed on the ground around the tank can be used.

Feeding on winter pasture can be done in numerous ways, Glazier said. Using more than one method, or alternating your approach as the weather dictates, can provide flexibility and efficiency. Depending on herd size, investment in higher cost solutions may be feasible.

Bales can be spread in pastures so that manure doesn’t collect in one area and to keep compaction and mud at a minimum. Laying out all of the bales at the beginning of winter can be labor-efficient, particularly if access to some fields is limited.

Year-round outdoor cattle considerations

Dairy cows grazing spread out hay bales in winter. Nearby residences are seen in the background. Educating non-farmers to the fact that livestock can safely and happily outwinter is imperative, Nancy Glazier, CCE NNY Dairy, Livestock and Field Team, said. Photo courtesy of Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, Milford, NJ

Animals can also be fed in a sacrifice area, particularly during thaws, to prevent damage to other pastures. These areas will accumulate manure and waste hay and can help increase pasture fertility and productivity in areas where pasture renovation is needed.

Another option is construction of permanent feeding pads. These will require site design and regular scraping. Environmental considerations include drainage and filtering runoff from the pad, which can be constructed from asphalt, stone or concrete. Wood chip pads are also an environmentally-friendly option for outwintering animals. The construction of the wood chip pad involves a compacted earth base, drainage pipes, a layer of stone and a wood chip surface.

Cattle can readily graze through snow as long as there is not an icy layer. Stockpiled forages from pastures that haven’t been grazed since late summer can provide winter grazing opportunities. Crop fields, where corn stalks or cover crops can be grazed, are another option for winter grazing.

When cows are fed hay in the evening rather than the morning, they can get a boost in keeping warm. Rumination creates heat, thereby keeping animals warmer during cold nights, Glazier said. Switching to evening feeding – at least on the coldest days – should be considered.

Some producers limit feeding to six hours per day. This slows digestion and feed passage rate and can decrease feed intake up to 25%. Feeding an ionophore is needed, and the hay must be of good quality, as determined by a forage test. It’s important to maintain body condition.

Limited feeding is “a way to limit hay intake, and it increases feed efficiency,” Glazier said. “Cattle learn when it’s feeding time and clean everything up.”

Feeding low-quality hay early in winter, and high-quality hay during the coldest weather, is another strategy. Low- and high-quality hay can also be offered at the same time, and the livestock can mix it themselves.

With every feeding method, there needs to be enough hay spaced out for all animals to access so timid cows will have a chance to feed too. All hay should be tested to ensure it is adequate for the nutritional needs based on life stage of the livestock. Cows require hay with 50% – 55% total digestible nutrients (TDN) per day, while heifers require 60% TDN. Adequate body conditioning score at birthing must be maintained.

“If you don’t have that quality in the supplies, you can always supplement somewhat,” Glazier said.

Site Selection

No matter how the cows are going to be fed, selecting the proper site for outwintering is important. High and dry locations are best. Mud can easily decrease intake. It is a stressor to be avoided. Mud of four to eight inches will reduce intake by up to 15%, and intake will be reduced by up to 30% in mud deeper than 12 inches. Cows can get stuck in mud too. The animals use a lot of energy coping with muddy conditions, and this creates an overall stressful environment – and intake is reduced when cows are under stress.

In the cows’ thermal neutral zone, temperatures are neither too hot or too cold and intake and maintenance energy requirements are steady. Outside of those parameters, cows have to utilize more energy to maintain their body condition. Energy required for maintenance goes up as it gets colder, although intake doesn’t really increase. This means there is less energy for gain, lactation or gestation.

Cows will bunch up and not want to separate to feed if conditions are too cold. It isn’t just the temperature, though. It’s also the wind chill. Sites should have a natural windbreak, or a windbreak can be made. Natural windbreaks include the edge of woods as well as hedgerows between fields. Shelter belts are planned and planted with multiple species of evergreen and deciduous trees which block prevailing winds and are a long-term project, Glazier said. Manmade windbreaks include moveable wooden fence panels or piled hay bales.

Even in cold weather regions, livestock can be safely maintained outdoors in winter. Planning on how to provide them with the needed water, food and protection from the weather is the key to successfully outwintering livestock.

“It’s really important to monitor the weather” when outwintering livestock, Glazier said, to anticipate any issues and make preparations to maintain the livestock safely.

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