Winter grazing can tackle two cattle-raising needs at once: spreading manure and providing wintertime fodder. Steve Kenyon, owner of Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Alberta, Canada, presented “Winter Grazing” as a recent webinar hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa. Greener Pastures Ranching is a custom grazing business.
Kenyon experiences plenty of snowy winter weather. Instead of viewing it as a detraction, he uses the snowfall as a key part of his business.
He said that winter grazing can help herdsmen reduce their winter feed costs.
“If you’re in a warmer climate where you don’t get as much ground cover, you’re at a disadvantage,” Kenyon said.
He calls dormant season grazing “an extension of summer grazing.”
“Our killing frost is our advantage,” Kenyon said. “I can keep some winter forage I can use. When the killing frost hits it, it keeps its value nice. The snow protects it and covers it. I love to get snow early so it won’t bleach out in the sun. But, the ability to do this means we have to have quality as well as quantity. If we can reach through the snow and get a handful of quality grass, they can get a mouthful.”
He said that his cattle can dig through even a foot or two of snow with a crust on top. The snow provides a protective, insulating layer.
“If you don’t get enough snow, it freezes, melts and gets solid,” Kenyon said. “Then you’re done. If you have a good foot of snow and you have a freeze and rain, they can get underneath.”
But if the snow melts and refreezes, the cattle can’t access it.
“We can supplement with pellets or protein mix,” Kenyon said. “You could supplement with high quality hay every few days.”
Since Kenyon doesn’t have a lot of equipment, he says he “begs, borrows or steals” places for animals to graze.
“I’m a market for grain farmers if they have a wrecked crop,” he said. “I bring in cattle to graze it off.”
He said that swath grazing reduces baling, hauling, feeding and manure costs.
“There’s so much benefit to having cattle on the land,” Kenyon said. “If you’re a mixed farmer, get cattle on every part of your land.”
Unfortunately, Kenyon doesn’t get access to these opportunities each winter. But when it does work out, it saves him a lot of work.
Kenyon said that the cows readily learn how to forage through snow.
“They walk over, put their head down and they know right where it is,” he said. “They can dig pretty deep. I take salvage crops.”
Kenyon said that winter grazing can take many forms, including swath grazing. The farmer combines it and leaves it in swaths. Especially if it’s a monoculture, he uses a mineral and supplement.
“I would much prefer to graze a poly-culture, but a lot of times, I’m offered a monoculture,” Kenyon said. “I’ve had protein and mineral imbalances and I have to make sure they have something like a good hay bale every couple of days.”
He also does bunch grazing, which piles the forage instead of leaving it in swaths. He uses an attachment on a combine that gathers chaff until it’s heavy enough to tip into a neat pile. Since each pile is about three feet wide, the cattle leave less waste where they eat since their hind end hangs off the edge. The bunches are also easier for them to find in the snow.
Kenyon puts the fencing in after swathing or bunching.
“Before a swath grazing trial, when the cattle go through a chute for pregnancy testing, get a dental check to see how old they are,” Kenyon said. “If they’re missing teeth, you might not want to get them on swath grazing. Once they clean it up, you can drive over it with your pickup. They clean it up pretty good.”
His biggest challenge is finding places to graze cattle.
“If you own cattle and are a grain farmer, it’s a no brainer,” Kenyon said. “It’s good for your land.”
The cattle distribute manure, enriching the soil and sparing the farmer the work in hauling manure.
But “if your ground doesn’t freeze all winter, you might have a problem,” Kenyon said.
It’s not all-or-nothing. If the ground thaws, the farmers can always bring in their cattle to feed something else until snow flies.
“The more weeks you can have animals on the land depositing their own manure, the better,” Kenyon said. “Have a plan B.”
If the ground thaws, hooves can be very rough on the field. But if it’s too cold, Kenyon has observed that the animals don’t tend to put forth the effort to dig for it.
“If it’s really cold, I might have other feed handy,” he said. “If the feed value of what they’re digging throught isn’t worth the energy spent for what they’ll eating, they’ll just stand there.”
He opens up an area with trees as a windscreen for them during the coldest parts of the winter only.
Providing enough water for the cows isn’t very difficult with adequate snow coverage. Kenyon estimates they receive about 60-70% of their hydration needs through grazing.
“If you get really warm spell and then you get ice, you’ll need a back-up,” he said. “I’ve had more issues with no snow stopping me than too much snow.”
He usually swath grazes November through January. In February and March is when the freeze/thaw cycle more likely disrupts his system.
He has also used silage grazing, where a herd eats through piles of old silage to avoid wasting it, and bale grazing, where the herds feeds on bales dropped throughout a field to distribute manure more evenly.
“A lot argue it isn’t grazing because we’re feeding, but I argue we’re feeding them with a grazing mentality,” Kenyon said. “We allow them a certain number of bales every few days.”
By moving his fencing, he keeps the herd where he wants them to keep the manure spread out. He places the bales about 25 feet apart in rows 25-30 feet apart. Kenyon raved about the soil improvement the method yields.
“It’s amazing the water holding capacity you get from bale grazing,” he said. “The reason I bale graze is labor costs. The bonus is the tremendous increase in production in the pasture. It’s amazing the difference.”
He said that it provides $90 an acre in revenue, compared with non-bale grazed pastures.
“Inefficiency is a good thing,” he said regarding the nutrients that pass through a cow’s digestive system. “That manure coming out the cow is gold.”
He added that about 80% of what goes into a cow comes out of a cow.
He receives $7,200 in fertilizer value for 200 cows bale grazing for 120 days.
“Get the animals out there as much as you can when it’s frozen,” Kenyon said. “When it thaws, get them out of (the pasture) and feed them something else.”