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Several options for winter grazing

Better to spend money on topping up nutrition than hauling feed

Winter feeding yardage costs can add up to $400 per head or more. It is cheaper to let cows feed themselves.

Winter grazing can work because it addresses one of the largest costs in maintaining a cow herd — yardage. For a simple definition, yardage is everything that is not feed. It includes tractors, fuel, depreciation on equipment, yard lights, fences, corrals and labour among other things.

Some recent work in both Alberta and Saskatchewan has shown that the average wintering cost for a cow is over $2 per day and some operations are over $3. For a 200-day winter, that is $400 and $600 respectively, just to feed one cow.

  • Read more: Winter grazing begins before Dec. 1
  • Read more: Corn residue can cut winter feeding costs

Put another way, yardage is the investment in fine china, silverware and waiter service when paper plates will do. I am of the firm opinion that yardage kills cow-calf outfits and most of us are better off to invest limited funds in nutrition rather than delivery strategies.

In the first article (Grainews, Jan. 24) we talked a bit about some of the technical aspects of winter grazing. There are a lot of ways to winter graze so I thought it might be worthwhile touching on some of the options along with some of the pros and cons of each. We have tried a lot of things at home and although we continue to experiment, we have evolved a suite of techniques that we use in combination most winters.

Stockpiled forages

Stockpiling means allowing grass to grow and then grazing it through the snow.

  • Pros — very low cost, limited labour (may not require cross fencing).
  • Cons — have to be very cautious about monitoring cows (not a high-energy diet), access can be difficult with deep or packed snow conditions, requires grazing management.

Swath grazing

This is one of the most common ways to start into winter grazing, and it is a great tool. Swath grazing basically means growing an annual grain crop, swathing it in roughly the mid-dough stage and then grazing the cows on the swaths. There have been some tremendous breakthroughs in swath grazing including recent work on triticale. We use a multi-species swath grazing mix that includes a very heavy seeding rate and usually consists of barley, oats, a legume (alfalfa/hairy vetch) and a winter cereal of either rye or triticale.

  • Pros — relatively low cost for seed and field operations; seeding period can be relatively late.
  • Cons — may be difficult to access swaths with deep, windswept packed snow. Wet falls can result in losses due to mould. May miss some spring moisture with late seeding. Need to limit access to ensure cattle don’t eat all the heads and run into an energy deficit. May be low in protein. May be some risk of nitrates with early fall frosts.

Rake bunching

Rake bunching is sort of one step past stockpiled forage or swath grazing. In our situation, we use an old dump rake to pull swaths into piles to improve access through deep snow. This has been one of the lowest-cost ways we have found to winter cattle.

  • Pros — improves access to feed; feed quality is high.
  • Cons — one additional field operation; may need to cross fence to control access.

Corn grazing

Grazing standing corn has become very common in my neighbourhood and is one of the tools we use in winter grazing.

  • Pros — High-yield, high-energy crop. No field operations after spraying. Easily accessed through snow. Can provide wind shelter. Can provide a disease break in rotation.
  • Cons — Expensive to grow, somewhat risky (long growing season). Requires attention to detail and agronomics. Must be cross fenced

Bale grazing

Bale grazing has become a staple of our winter feeding program. In fact we even use bale grazing on our backgrounders and weaned calves. Basically with bale grazing, the bales are set out in the field ahead of time and are rationed out with electric fencing. In fact on land that we own or rent, we very seldom haul bales, and prefer to fence around them during the winter. Some producers I have met even bale graze with net wrap and leave the wrap on, picking it up in the spring.

  • Pros — Import and distribution of nutrients and organic matter on bale-grazing site. Easy access in deep snow. Control over ration quality. Reduced spoilage vs. swath grazing
  • Cons — Twine removal. More expensive than swath grazing.

Chaff/straw bunches

Chaff bunching can be done a variety of different ways, however two pretty common ones are to use a buncher at the back of the combine to create straw/chaff piles in the field or to use a chaff wagon to collect and dump chaff in the field after the combine. These can be a good source of feed. We do not have a lot of personal experience with this, since we are strictly cattle and have not found a grain farmer to participate in a project yet, but learned in visiting with several producers who use this as a feed source there is a lot to be gained.

  • Pros — Utilizes a byproduct of grain farming. Low cost. Relatively easy access through snow (pile-size dependent). Clean up weed seeds and cycle nutrients in a cropping system.
  • Con — May not be a complete ration, particularly for protein.

Silage pile grazing

We have not engaged in silaging on our operation as I could never figure out an economical way to feed it back out (that yardage problem again), however it is a high-quality feed that stores well. This summer I met a couple of producers that are silaging and creating piles in the field and then are using electric fence to control access to the pile and grazing it on the spot. I have added these on my “to be toured” list.

  • Pros — High-quality feed that stores well, saves trucking to pit and feeding from pit to field
  • Cons — Cost of silage operation. Needs to be supplemented. There might be freezing or pit-face issues (under carving).

Cons can be overcome

These are just a few of the winter grazing options that are being used out there and just a sampling of some of the pros and cons of each. Again, like most things, cons can be managed into pros or at least minimized into smaller issues.

A good example, that many of the systems have in common is the creation of relatively high soil phosphate levels. This is largely because phosphate is a relatively immobile nutrient and is somewhat concentrated in cattle manure. This can be managed around through crop cycles to plants that require a lot of phosphate (corn is a good example) and by doing something as simple as feeding a high-calcium mineral (we have fed as high as 7:1 on perennial swath grazing ground) to balance out the calcium/phosphorus ratio in the diet.

The biggest pro that all of these grazing options have in common is that they reduce yardage costs. Every system does not work equally well for every producer. Some producers in deeper snow country may be more risk averse regarding some of the less costly systems that provide more limited access, and others may be more averse to systems that provide less spring grazing potential.

Others will develop a variety of strategies that work together to get through winter as inexpensively as possible. As always, winter is a tougher season than summer, so a backup plan, supplemental feeds or other risk management strategies are a good idea.

I would be lying if I said everything had always worked perfectly at our place. We have had to deploy backup plans more than once, but we are in a lot better position using winter grazing strategies than without.

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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