By Jessica A. Williamson
Winter feeding can cause severe pasture degradation. Taking action to prevent as much damage as possible can help reduce erosion and encourage forage regrowth in the spring.
There is not a “one size fits all” answer to reducing pasture damage during winter feeding. Each individual producer should analyze his or her operation and determine if there are small steps that they can take to reduce the damage incurred annually while feeding in the winter.
1. Create a sacrifice pasture or lot.
By designating one area on a farm that has the purpose of being utilized during undesirable weather conditions, this saves the other pastures from getting damaged. Feed your stored feedstuffs only in the designated sacrifice areas during the late fall, winter and early spring – or until your pastures have acquired enough growth in the spring to be grazed.
2. Split your sacrifice area into 2 or more sections.
This further allows for control over where your livestock can be during winter feeding. By splitting an existing area into smaller sections, changes in weather patterns and precipitation can cause less destruction by confining the livestock in a “muddy” area, then allowing them to get to a drier area that they were not on previously after the ground freezes or dries.
3. Target Feeding
Move hay feeders, mineral feeders, or feed bunks to different spots in the sacrifice areas to “lure” livestock to different, unpopular parts of the area. This can help to reduce damage and mud accumulation in the heavily traveled and highly popular areas of the sacrifice lot.
4. Bale Grazing
Rolling out hay can be a unique way to feed livestock while reducing the high traffic area of a hay feeder. This practice helps with nutrient distribution back to the soil as well as provides livestock a better opportunity to select the highest quality forage within a bale; however, it comes at a cost. Rolling out bales of hay for livestock to eat can lead to an exorbitant amount of forage waste – anywhere from 15-50%, depending on the quality of the hay, how much forage is available for consumption, and the grazing habits of the livestock. This practice can be utilized best when feed resources are plentiful and when feeding a lower quality forage than ideal for the class of livestock targeted. It can be used in combination with other feeding techniques, such as feed bunks or ring feeders that are being used to feed the higher quality forage.
5. Ring Hay Feeders
On the contrary to bale grazing, feeding round bales in ring feeders or grinding and feeding in bunks can lead to less waste. Ring feeders can be moved across the sacrifice area to help reduce mud and wet conditions in one area of the field or can be placed on a concrete slab so the removal of mud and manure can be easily handled. Utilizing feeders often result in less waste of the forage, but if placed in the field in one area can result in more pasture damage over time.
6. Stockpile Forage for Deferred Grazing
Stockpiling pasture for deferred winter grazing can be an excellent way to extend the grazing season, keep livestock “out on pasture” and out of the sacrifice lot, feed higher quality forage than harvested forages, and encourage nutrient distribution. Allowing the forage to grow 70-90 days prior to the end of the fall growing season after the application of 40-80 lb of nitrogen ensures maximum forage accumulation for winter grazing. A managed strip grazing technique is necessary to optimize the utilization of the stockpiled forage and minimize trampling and waste. Although the forages are in a dormant state, we recommend still maintaining a 3” residue height – remember, that forage will need to regrow in the spring. Carbohydrate reserves are stored in the lowest portion of the cool-season perennial plant, just above the soil surface. If the livestock graze too low and eat the plant’s reserves, it will take longer to regenerate and regrow the following spring. More information on stockpiling cool-season perennials .
7. Select hardy forage species for your sacrifice pasture.
Selecting forage species that can withstand harsh, unideal conditions with dense root systems and high tolerance to frequent grazing do the best at withstanding year-after-year of winter feeding. Ideal cool-season perennial forages are Kentucky Bluegrass and Tall fescue.
8. Feed on concrete or structured feeding pad.
Feeding livestock on concrete or another hard surface allows for the concentration of manure and urine to be in a centralized areas and eases removal of these nutrients. If livestock are then able to go to a dry area for leisure and bedding, this further improves the benefit of the area.
Following winter feeding, reseeding severely damaged sacrifice pastures that have been severely damaged with annual forages is an excellent way to optimize forage production in that area, while also suppressing weed pressure. Planting a warm season annual like Sudangrass, sorghum x sudan, or pearl millet directly into your sacrifice pasture will allow the opportunity for pasture productivity from an otherwise lower-producing field due to the winter damage it incurred.
Careful management and planning can help to reduce winter damage as a result of livestock feeding. Each producer should analyze their past winter issues and asses the possibilities for overcoming severe pasture damage this upcoming year.