Allocating winter pasture

Roger Gates
for Tri-State Livestock News

In my column last January, as early indicators of drought possibility were accumulating, I urged readers to spend some time developing a contingency plan to respond to drought conditions and feed supply limitations. The same message was reiterated in last week’s front page article by Gayle Smith. Drought is always difficult, but having a response plan in place removes some of the risk and vulnerability associated with hasty or delayed decisions.

Currently high prices for grain and hay will place a premium on decisions made about providing winter feed. For those that adjusted feed demand in response to dry conditions, the value of pasture reserved for winter grazing is exceptional this year. Using that accumulated growth to reduce the need for harvested or purchased feed may be an attractive way to reduce winter feed costs.

The challenge this year will be to stretch the limited supply as far as possible without compromising animal performance. Allocation of feed resources available from winter pasture is simplified to one degree because the quantity available can be determined at the beginning of the winter grazing period. The total feed available is entirely dependent on growing conditions during the preceding summer. No additional accumulation of vegetation will occur after a killing frost. Careful observation, supplemented with simple clipping can provide a very reliable estimate of the total feed available. Unlike grazing plans developed for the growing season, for which uncertainty is substantial because of rainfall variation, the uncertainty associated with winter grazing plans depends on snowfall. Winter grazing may be limited by the duration of open conditions which permit reliable grazing access. However, many producers, determined to make winter grazing part of a year-round grazing goal, have succeeded in providing grazing even when snow cover is substantial.

Decisions about winter grazing should consider at least two aspects, the nutritional needs of the livestock and stewardship of resources. Nutrient content of dormant forage is generally adequate, especially for the needs of a mature, dry cow. If the rationale for winter grazing is to limit costs, then expenditures for supplemental feed should be minimized. Protein is likely to be the first limiting nutrient in dormant pasture. Needs for supplementation will increase as nutrient demands increase, particularly for a pregnant female. Testing the nutrient content of the vegetation selected by animals provides the best guidelines for determining supplementation needs. Another approach would be to use the NUTBAL procedure while cattle are grazing. This involves collecting fecal samples which are submitted through the NRCS. Sample analysis, along with descriptions of the vegetation and the class and condition of cattle, can provide guidance about the energy and protein adequacy of the diet being consumed.

In addition to appropriate stocking decisions, a rotation plan can be beneficial during the winter, just as it can be during the growing season. While there is no benefit from accumulated growth during a deferment, moving to a fresh pasture, even once or twice during the winter, better distributes grazing pressure across more plants and tends to maintain nutrient levels instead of a continuous decline which would occur without rotation.

The challenge for the grazing manager is to optimally allocate those “most palatable” components available from the winter pasture. A conventional approach, allocating an entire pasture, allows livestock to select a relatively high-quality diet initially, but the opportunity to select a nutritious diet declines because there is no replacement of new and nutritious plant tissue that can occur during the growing season. The alternative to providing the pasture “all at once,” is to ration access gradually. More intensive winter grazing management, such as strip grazing, buffers the consumption of the most nutritious plants and plant parts, so that a more nutritious diet is available later into the winter. Once vegetation is stockpiled and “cured” at the end of the growing season, decline in nutritional value is relatively slow. An opportunity for livestock to select a “better than average” diet can be preserved by using a rationing strategy. The greater opportunity livestock are given to select, the more nutritious a diet they can obtain. Managers control this through the total quantity of pasture which is accessible. In addition to extending the nutritional value of winter pasture, a rotational plan such as strip grazing can improve the utilization of the pasture through reductions in trampling and fouling.

A capacity of ruminant livestock that can be exploited in winter grazing is their ability to recycle nitrogen. Dietary protein is essential for livestock, primarily to supply nitrogen. Optimal nitrogen concentrations in the rumen are necessary to maintain fiber digestion. Facilitating fiber digestion is critical to maintaining livestock performance on winter pasture because of the typically high fiber content of the diet. Research which has demonstrated adequate performance of beef cows when they receive supplemental protein every third day or even once a week demonstrates this capacity to recycle nitrogen and maintain adequate rumen concentrations.

Grazing managers can take advantage of the same phenomena. Since animal selection results in the highest quality diet when access to “fresh” pasture is first provided, protein and therefore dietary nitrogen concentrations will be highest initially when a new strip is offered. Dietary quality may decline as the duration of occupation advances, but rumen nitrogen concentrations are likely to remain adequate. Providing a new strip every third day is probably sufficient to provide adequate nutrition for dry, pregnant mature beef cows.

Winter grazing requires prudent planning. Provision must be made for adequate water accessibility, protection from severe conditions and contingency for feed provision during blizzards or heavy snow cover. Nonetheless, grazing dormant pastures can provide attractive alternatives to reduce winter feed costs. While more intensive grazing management requires planning and time, this may be the year to consider it. It provides one way to make the low-cost feed from pasture stretch as far as possible.