Snow Grazing Saves Feed Costs

If you have a cow-calf or stocker operation, now is the time to set things up for the new grazing season. No, I'm not talking about the usual Ontario grazing months of mid-May to September. The new grazing season I'm referring to starts after most beef cattle have migrated to the safety of the barn and the luxury of stored feed ! It features freezing temperatures and a picturesque white blanket on the field. Completing the scene is a herd of healthy cattle, getting ready to welcome a flying sleigh pulled by small ruminants who will fuel up on the pasture prior to completing their global trip. That's right … grazing on December 24th. Is this possible ? You'd better believe it is !

Research projects at the University of Guelph's New Liskeard Research Station have been part of the pioneering effort to explore the applicability of winter grazing in Ontario. At the start, skeptics were many, while supporters were few. Not many observers thought that beef cows would be able to survive past September in an outdoor system with only windbreaks for shelter and pasture for feed. Another factor which was thought to be a negative was the type of cows to be used … they were large frame crossbreds, averaging 1400 lbs, who were used to above average quality feed and excellent winter quarters.

For the initial experiment, researchers Christoph Wand and Jock Buchanan-Smith allocated dry, pregnant cows to three treatment groups. They were placed either on a grass pasture, a legume pasture or in a barn. Barn cows were fed baled forage. The timothy and trefoil dominated pastures had been harvested mid-July and allowed to regrow, "stockpiling" standing forage for fall usage. The trial commenced on Oct 9th, with cattle grazing controlled with electrified polywire, which was advanced daily to minimize trampling and wastage. Cattle performance and health were closely monitored.

The results amazed researchers and observers alike ! For the first 2 months, the pasture cattle out performed their herd mates in the barn (see Figure 1). These cows got down to business and did what beef cows do so well - grazing enthusiastically, and making efficient use of standing forage.

"But just wait till the snow comes and that north wind begins to howl" predicted the naysayers, "the cows will shiver and stand at the lane bawling to get back to their barn!" As in most years in Temiskaming, it got colder as November commenced, dipping to -18' C at night, with a light snow cover brightening the landscape (Figure 2). The cows bravely thrust their muzzles into the snow and kept on grazing ! Although the cows had ready access to a windbreak, they rarely used it unless it was both cold and quite windy. They seemed to enjoy bedding down out in the fields, meditatively chewing their cud beneath twinkling stars on crisp nights, steaming like tea kettles with every breath.

As December advanced, snow cover increased and temperatures continued to drop. Analysis of samples of the standing forage showed that feed value decreased surprisingly little over the course of the trial, and was comparable with the baled forage fed to the barn cows. The grazing cows didn't show any signs of slowing down until snow depth exceeded 25 cm, and their intake of forage was reduced. This resulted in grazing cows starting to lose body weight and condition, and the cows were pulled from the fields on Dec. 18th.

Following these cows through calving, breeding, and weaning showed that fall/winter grazing did not have a negative impact on production parameters such as calving ease, pregnancy rate, calf survival or weaning weight. Extending the grazing season reduced expenses by about $50 per cow due to the lower cost of pasture versus feeding baled forage and reduced costs for bedding and manure handling. Subsequent research showed that fence movement could be reduced to once per week, without detriment, making the technique easy for farmers to apply.

Figure 1. Cow Weight Change During Fall Grazing

Figure 1. Cow Weight Change During Fall Grazing

Little capital investment is needed to implement extended season grazing. Its just a different way to manage the forage resource - letting the cows do their jobs as self propelled forage harvesters and manure spreaders. And what about the naysayers ? Well, I was one of them; now I say: "There's no grazing like snow grazing" !

Picture showing  cow grazing through  snow

Figure 2. Grazing Through Snow

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