Winter grazing more than turning cattle out on field

Winter grazing can greatly reduce a cattle farm’s operational costs, but savings come with increased risk. 


Vern Baron, an Agriculture Canada research scientist who studies the costs and benefits of winter grazing, said it can reduce production costs by up to 40 percent.


“Daily costs of cattle production are from $1.50 to $2 a day, and that includes capital as well as feed costs,” Baron said. 


“Costs can be brought down to under a dollar per day using extended grazing.”


Savings come from reduced time and money spent harvesting, transporting, storing and distributing the feed throughout the winter, while the manure is already spread where it is needed.


Baron recommended extended grazing, which includes grazing the second cut of a hay field instead of mechanically harvesting it. Second cut hay crops are allowed to regrow, and cattle are let into the field usually between September and November.


Baron also recommends swath grazing, in which crops are swathed and left in the field for cattle to forage in winter months. 


Crops such as triticale, barley and corn are swathed late in the fall when the temperature is dropping and there is less chance of warm wet weather, which can reduce quality. Larger swaths are recommended because they shed more precipitation and are easier for cattle to find in the snow.


Grant Lastiwka, a grazing-forage-beef specialist at Alberta Agriculture, feeds 50 cow-calf pairs using extended grazing techniques. He said production costs decrease as the number of good grazing days increases. 


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“We want to manage for a 365 day nutritional system,” he said. “We’re challenging the cows at times. We’re also offsetting the challenges by putting a good body condition on them while we can. So these animals are less stressed by the cold because they’re fatter.”


Baron said cattle should be in at least body condition No. 3 going into the winter.


“If you are going to do any of these extended grazing techniques, you have to understand your cows are going to lose weight because they have to work more for their feed in the winter.”


Swath grazing doesn’t achieve its cost saving potential if cattle are just turned into a swathed field. Too much feed will be wasted. An essential part of an extended grazing system is limited grazing, most often through moving electric fences.


Producers, who need to be able to water cattle in winter grazing systems, should contact local forage associations that will be aware of area specific watering solutions.


“Anyone who recommends that cows can overwinter on snow is probably erroneous because you have to have enough snow and fresh snow,” Baron said.


Relying too much on extended grazing can be risky. A warm and wet fall can cause swathed feed to deteriorate, but Baron said it’s rare for losses from spoilage to exceed the savings when managed properly.


Difficult conditions can cause the greatest risk. Deep snow or snow that melts and then forms a hard crust can make it impossible for cattle to break through to the feed.


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Baron said winter grazing is not done in some parts of Manitoba because producers say the snow is too deep and temperatures too cold.


Contingency plans are important if snow conditions prevent grazing. For example, Baron said he doesn’t recommend producers sell their balers. They can significantly reduce the risks associated with extended grazing by having a field ready for cattle to bale graze or a pen with feed stocks. 


Lastiwka said bale grazing doesn’t have the same potential savings because the bales have to be harvested and transported and residue must sometimes be dealt with in the spring. However, there is also less risk involved.


Lastiwka and Barron couldn’t say if a specific cattle breed is best equipped for extended grazing, but Lastiwka said herds will become more efficient over time as producers retain cattle that do best in this feeding system.


It also takes cattle time to learn how to winter graze, so they need to be closely monitored when they are first expected to graze in winter months.


Lastiwka said chaff bunch grazing also has significant saving potential. There are some equipment costs, including chaff collectors and fences, but the system can use feed that would otherwise be wasted, especially in non-productive areas of a field.


Extended grazing also has soil fertility benefits. For instance, crops can easily use nutrients from urine that cattle distributed across the field instead of wasting it in a pen. 


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