I confess, I am a winter grazier.
I love grazing cows in the wintertime. I like reducing my labour and cutting my costs. I like free time for spending with kids or writing Grainews articles. Truth be told, I even like riding saddle horses in the cold, as a lot of our terrain is not conducive to any other sort of cow-checking or gathering technology.
While we may have pushed the limits a bit at home, I have often been told that what we do at home will not work here, with “here” representing a variety of locations. This is particularly interesting to me since we live just southwest of Lloydminster, Alta. and have been accused of having weekly chinooks and mild winters. Fortunately, I also live just southwest of Lloydminster, Sask., so most winters are much more difficult weatherwise.
This is a bit in jest but it illustrates the next point very nicely. The reality is that winter grazing is both possible and impossible, and that the difference between these two extremes has nothing to do with Mother Nature.
I have been lucky to get to know a lot of winter graziers from around the country and the world and some have much less forgiving climates than we do. Like most things in life the answer depends more on our own attitudes than on the practicality of the issue. Historical texts report that many bison migrated north to the North Saskatchewan River to spend the winter, and I know that there are quite a few ruminants in Wood Buffalo National Park that live farther north than here. With that said, there are a few things that I think can make or break a winter grazing program.
One of the primary jobs of any cattle producer is to grow or obtain forage and then ration it out to their animals. There is a wide variety of ways to accomplish this, ranging all the way from set stock grazing, to silaging and delivering forage in a dry lot with a machine. The fundamental point here is that as managers, one of our most basic tasks is to ensure a forage supply for our livestock. If we cannot produce forage or find a source, winter grazing will be tough.
Forage can come in a lot of forms, stubble, chaff piles, swaths, stockpiled grass, bales, silage or standing corn — are all examples. Since access to forage may be made more difficult through snow accumulation, volume and availability is critical. You cannot expect cows to winter graze on a pasture where grass is less than six inches tall.
It is also key to test forages and build a ration regardless of the delivery method we choose to feed our cows. For pasture or stockpiled grazing, take a clipping from various areas of the pasture and test the feed. Standing corn should be sampled across the field as a whole plant. Swath grazing can use grab samples from various locations around the field. Even with winter grazing we still may need to supplement in order to meet nutritional requirements.
We always use our samples to build a ration, even in a grazing situation. As an example, on land that has been continuously swath grazed, it often happens that phosphorus levels rise and a high calcium mineral must be fed to maintain the proper CA:P ratio of 1:1 to 2:1 in the diet.
Winter is winter for a reason. It can be chilly and we need to appreciate what we are asking a cow to accomplish as the temperature drops. Wind protection, forage quality — especially in the form of energy, body condition and stage of production are all key factors in dealing with winter weather. A fat cow with a windbreak can make do with a lot lower-quality forage than a skinny cow that may be lactating in a windstorm.
While we can still access forage through grazing, there are points where we may need to supplement cows. One trick that can be used to help cows utilize lower-quality forage is to provide a protein supplement to the diet. This added protein can boost the cow’s intake so she can consume more total energy and maintain condition in cold weather. A protein supplement can also provide a good opportunity to check cows and ensure that balanced mineral nutrition is being delivered.
Stage of production
A cow has a variety of energy requirements over the course of a production year. If we were to split the year into four quarters, her peak requirement occurs during the three months after calving. She is recovering from calving and producing milk for her calf. Months four to six are also pretty energy intense as her calf continues to grow and demand more milk. If the calf is weaned around six months of age, then months six to nine are her annual holiday. The cow is not milking and is carrying a very small fetus.
In months nine to 12 the cow is preparing for calving and carrying a rapidly growing fetus, as well as mobilizing body stores to calve and start milking. If your production schedule is such that months six to nine are occurring in midwinter, it is possible to stretch the winter grazing envelope since this coincides with the lowest energy requirement for the cow.
It is important to note here even if they are not lactating, high-milk cows will have a significantly greater energy requirement than cows with less milk production. This is in large part due to increased gut/organ mass associated with milk production and the metabolic cost of maintaining these organs.
Rationing and waste
One concern I hear a lot with winter grazing scenarios is the issue of feed waste. This is an interesting one where I believe the answer lies with the individual manager. The issue or perception of waste can be framed a lot of different ways. Leaving organic matter and manure out in the field can actually stimulate future productivity, however there are concerns over how much is too much and does the waste offset the cost of feed delivery.
This is confounded by the issue of yardage (fuel and tractors and time) that we seldom discuss as a waste and sometimes don’t even see as a cost. There is some good work from Alberta showing the waste from processing bales on the ground may actually be higher than bale grazing.
Rationing forage in the field is a bit of an acquired art form, but the reality is that if you want to reduce waste you can use smaller paddock sizes to force cleanup before feed quality declines.
In other words, if you have a month on a paddock, the animals will eat all the grain in the first week, and straw for the next three. If we ration into smaller bite-sized paddocks, cattle can eat grain and fibre over the entire three or five days or even a week. Supplementing at the end of a paddock can assist in final cleanup of the less desirable feed. For a lot of managers, the instructions “don’t move the fence” are extremely difficult to adhere to, but it will reduce waste.
I know good managers check their cows, but winter is not a “turn ’em out” season. It is extremely important to monitor cattle nutrition and health on an ongoing basis including body condition and other indicators of performance.
A backup plan is essential, even if that plan is simply moving to a different type of grazing (eg: stockpiled grass to standing corn). The price for pushing the limits is a degree of vigilance in making sure that the cattle are taken care of within those limits. Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive in that the cattle are much healthier in our extensive system than in a confinement feeding system. This includes backgrounded calves as well as the cow herd.
Managing the whole system
How winter grazing works for your operation will vary. For example, if you are calving early it is not recommended you have your cows out in the middle of nowhere on the first of February, so some of the more extended options may fit differently than herds calving in June, as an example.
The one thing in common between every winter grazier I know is the winter grazing season starts with planning and growing forage long before December 1. To be successful, winter grazing has to be part of an overall plan, rather than an afterthought or addendum to the program. The savings to winter grazing can be tremendous.
Recent work from Agri-Profits and WBDC work show the wintering cost for a cow to average over $2 per day. By winter grazing we can readily cut that number in half — over 200 days of saving $1 per cow day amounts to double the long-term profit in most cow-calf operations. Again our experience shows that savings estimate to be extremely conservative. I suspect many producers have daily wintering costs well over $3, if they are honest with their valuations for feed, time and equipment costs.
Winter grazing represents a tremendous opportunity to add value to a program by reducing yardage costs. The more intense the feeding program at present, the more savings can be achieved. It does take time to get comfortable with winter grazing, so go slow and seek out mentors to help you get started.
There are some good publications out there as well. Try a Google search for “Year Round Grazing 365.” Hopefully the dramatic reduction in workload and increase in profits to achieve the same results will drive you to push the envelope even further.