Improving winter livestock management


by Karl H. Kazaks

As winter settles in, reviewing your winter livestock management strategy can help you improve the productivity and profitability of your operation. Recently, NRCS hosted a webinar with three of its agronomy and grazing experts to discuss approaches to handling livestock during what can be a challenging time of the year.

“Making hay and feeding hay is the most expensive part of the cow business as far as I am concerned,” said NRCS’s Indiana State Agronomist/Grazing Specialist Victor Shelton.

Yet feeding stored forages is the most common method to maintain livestock over the winter, particularly in more northern locations, said Adam Jones, NRCS Kentucky State Grazing Specialist.

We also know that, as Steve Woodruff, agronomist at NRCS’s East National Technology Support Center in Greensboro, NC, said, “winter feeding is tough.” So what do you do?

“Winter happens,” Shelton said. You can’t avoid it and you want to make sure when it’s here you have enough feed or forage or a combination of both to keep your livestock going until spring.

One of the ways to reduce winter feeding issues is to reduce the amount of feeding and to utilize grazing instead. “It’s almost always cheaper to graze something than to feed something,” Shelton said. “I tell people all the time, ‘If the wheel is turning, you’re spending money.’” By reducing the amount of time you feed in the winter, not only can you save money, but you can also reduce the amount of resource concerns which arise when you feed animals in one concentrated spot.

One answer, Woodruff pointed out, is to increase your resource base by adding additional land. Even the addition of just a few acres of land can improve your operation. Another option, Shelton said, is to increase forage efficiency – get more productivity out of the land you do have. One way to do that is to stockpile forage. Another way is to graze cropland residue.

Avoid overgrazing. The general rule of thumb is to not graze lower than four inches for warm season grasses, or six to 12 inches for warm season grasses, depending on the species. That measuring stick of four inches, Shelton said, is for the lowest point in the sward, not the highest.

What’s more, Shelton advised giving your pastures time to recover post-grazing prior to going dormant. This allows the roots of the forages to regrow and the plants to be in a better state for winter and spring.

That could mean feeding hay earlier than you typically do. Feeding hay in the summer may actually allow you to feed less hay overall year-round. By allowing pastures to rest in the peak of summer when it’s really hot and dry, you may boost autumn production enough to provide more grazing throughout autumn and winter months, Shelton said.

Evaluating environmental and soil conditions is important when grazing and feeding in the winter months. Snow shouldn’t be a problem when grazing fields when the depth of the snow is less than the level of the grazing animal’s eye, Shelton said. “Ideally, you want dry or frozen conditions to graze,” he said, “but you don’t always get that.”

Grazing or feeding during wet conditions can lead to soil disturbances which the following year can lead to weedy pastures. Be aware of compaction when allowing livestock to graze cropland residue, and thus don’t feed them supplements on cropland, which would encourage them to linger. Instead, provide that feed either in a pasture area or a dedicated feeding area.

If you have stored standing forage, consider using temporary fences, Shelton advised. Not only will it help maximize efficiency of feeding, but it will also promote better distribution of manure and urine.

When using temporary fencing, Shelton has noticed that when conditions are wet, blocks can be more effective than long, narrow strips. The strips tend to promote animal travel along the fence line, which leads to more disturbance and possibly erosion.

When you evaluate your winter feeding program, Woodruff advised, keep in mind what your goals and your resource concerns are. What may work for someone on the other side of the county may not work for you. At the same time, the same sort of concerns crop up whether you are feeding or grazing on pasture or utilizing a dedicated site – animal health, soil compaction and erosion, water quality and more.

In the East, a lot of winter feeding takes place where the ground is level, to make travel with tractors easier and to reduce the chance of tearing up sloped ground. But repeated feeding at the same location means nutrient deposition is concentrated in one area when nutrients should be back on pastures. Plus, if your feeding area is in a level area near a waterway, you may be dealing with potential water quality issues.

One solution Woodruff suggested is to rotate your winter feeding area, using temporary fencing, as Shelton described, with stockpiled grazing. Make sure to avoid environmentally sensitive areas when practicing this option, Woodruff stressed. Another option is to dedicate one area to winter feeding – in the right place, where resource concerns are minimized. (For help planning, see your local NRCS agent.) The result of feeding in one dedicated area may make a modest impact in that area which is more than offset by the gains experienced on the other areas of your farm which are untouched during winter months.

NRCS has programs to assist with winter feeding, Jones said, including grants to build animal walkways, access roads, bedded pack barns and more.

Bale grazing is also a strategy some producers use. In this strategy, the operator will put out bales of hay in autumn when the ground can still readily support tractor travel. Come winter feeding time, the bales are restricted from livestock with temporary fencing. By moving the fencing – just as with stockpiled grazing – the producer can promote maximal feed efficiency and the efficient distribution of manure and urine through the pastures.

Overall, there are lot of sophisticated approaches to customizing a winter livestock management system in your operation. Consult with your local NRCS agent while winter is still with us. Before you know it, it will be time to reseed and keep up with the many demands of spring.

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