GRANTVILLE, Pa. — Winter grazing can be a struggle for producers because the wet, cold conditions can reduce the digestibility and protein content of forages.
Penn State Extension educator Jessica Williamson offered some ideas for overcoming those obstacles Oct. 22 during the Keystone Crops and Soils Conference.
The first step is to designate a winter sacrifice lot, and don’t harvest hay on it during the fall.
Stockpiled forages — the stuff that’s left growing in the field — is generally of better quality than hay.
“That is tough for producers to get over emotionally, to see a bunch of forage out there that is off limits and that you can’t graze,” Williamson said. “But hold off. It’s worth it because it’s going to make your life easier going into the winter.”
Farmers should select forages that withstand the cruel winter conditions and frequent grazing.
Cool-season perennial grasses usually thrive in wet and low pH conditions. Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, ryegrass, reed canarygrass and tall fescue are all good options.
Reed canarygrass can be difficult to establish, but “once you get it in a field, it will stand the test of time,” Williamson said.
Cool-season grasses store their energy reserves in the lower portion of the plant. To help with regrowth, farmers should leave 2-3 inches of leaf on pastures that they harvest or graze, she said.
Strip grazing can also limit the time cattle spend on a particular pasture, which minimizes the damage from hooves, Williamson said.
Farmers can also unroll low-quality round bales to return nutrients to the soil and provide bedding.
Because this method can elevate feed loss, it might be best for cows, which waste less than heifers do.
Ring hay feeders can also reduce bale waste, but if they are left in the same place, the livestock traffic will damage the ground.
Moving the hay feeders, mineral feeders or feed bunks — or putting them on a hard surface — can cut down on the mud, Williamson said.
Producers should put out a bale of hay in the morning, which is the largest meal of day.
Snow doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the grazing season.
Cattle will graze through 9 inches of snow. Sheep can handle 4-5 inches, but they will not contend with a heavy frost.