There’s no way to get around putting up feed for wintering livestock, but there are several ways to minimize the amount of hay fed, the cost of feed delivery, and the cost of hauling away and spreading manure.
Steve Kenyon of Greener Pastures Ranching at Busby, Alta., says that planning for winter grazing and feeding starts in the summer, and continues year-over-year.
Properly managed forage in the spring, summer, and fall can extend true grazing into November or even December, through stockpiling forage or crop aftermath grazing. Kenyon says there’s also the possibility of much earlier spring grazing with properly stock-piled paddocks, as well. It all takes careful planning and adhering to Kenyon’s five regenerative grazing principles (read more on those here).
In order to extend grazing, Kenyon uses a few strategies. One of them is the concept of a “disposable herd.” The term is a little misleading, he admits, as it simply means a herd of, say, yearlings that will be sold earlier in the season, but it could be a leased or custom grazing herd, or it could be accomplished through haying as well. The idea is you design your grazing for a full season with two herds and run them through the first rotation. Then, at some point through the second rotation, you sell off the second herd (or move it, or stop haying) and run the first herd through later, allowing the land plenty of time to grow plenty of forage.
The second option is deferred grazing, where a piece of land is purposely left to go to seed and just grow, perhaps for most of the year. “The quality is lower, with lower protein and energy, yes, and you will have to supplement, but the bulk feed is there,” Kenyon says. Supplementing bulk feed is cheaper than substituting a full ration, he says. Depending on the year, that deferred grazing is done in the very late fall or early winter.
Bale grazing is a form of winter grazing, although, yes, the hay has to be made, transported, and set up. But, Kenyon also looks at the value in those imported nutrients. Bale grazing is a great way to increase soil fertility and water holding capacity, he says, and it significantly lowers your yardage costs, too, as there are no pens to clean out, no manure to spread, and no tractors to start in the dead of winter.
While plenty of bale grazing set up is done in the fall, you can set it out during the winter, too. Kenyon says he prefers to put bales on end if placed during the winter, but on their sides if set out in the fall. He pulls strings before the cows are turned out.
There are several other unique and creative ways to feed livestock in winter. Kenyon has tried silage pile grazing, after a farmer approached him to clean up some old piles that weren’t going to get used. Using hot wire and accounting for nine inches of “bunk space” each, he says it worked OK, but left a heck of a mess.
“Silage is an efficient way to harvest forage, but it’s an expensive way to feed,” he says. He hasn’t tried it, but grazing silage bags could be an option.
Another cost-effective option can be grazing crop aftermath, and Kenyon has found that bunching the swaths with some low-tech combine additions can really help clean up the field. The idea to drop straw in bunches came after Kenyon observed cows doing a better job cleaning up where the straw had piled up. It makes sense, he says, as the bunch is easier to access and has a higher concentration of seeds. Again, you may need to supplement, but grain farmers are very happy with the residue breakdown that happens through a cow, versus spreading and waiting.
Swath grazing can happen when a crop is grown for that purpose, but Kenyon says he’s often called to swath graze a field that was a failed crop. It’s not his preferred livestock feed, as it’s usually just one species, but a mix of peas and oats and some diverse weed species can offer great nutrition to a herd.
In any winter grazing scenario, Kenyon notes it’s important to keep an eye on body condition of the livestock. Not all animals are as aggressive diggers through snow and some may tend to be the clean up crew. These cattle can end up missing out on key nutrients and will start to lose condition, and will need to be removed and fed in another system.
There are wrecks, too. Kenyon says he’s usually okay through January, but melts in February or March can really cause issues. Too much snow is rarely an issue for swath grazing, but not enough is as well, as it can limit water availability for cows, or, when a melt happens, the water gets into the swath and freezes it solid. Enough snow cover protects against this.
One strategy is to plan to move animals to bale grazing in February or March, and being sure to have an appropriate place to move them during the spring thaw (a pasture/sod holds up well in April, but you’d never want them on a grain field during the thaw).
The more adaptable you can be based on the year and the growing season, and hay and land availability, the better off you’ll be in truly extending the grazing season year-round.