Developing a forage system that includes baled hay and windrow grazing can help keep feed costs down without too much risk, says Joe Brummer, Colorado State University forage specialist based at the Mountain Meadow Research Center near Gunnison.
However, winter grazing takes some planning that starts well before the first snow flies, he cautions. Here's Brummer's list of steps to take for successful windrow grazing:
* Spring is the time to make decisions for windrow grazing.
Depending on location, windrows should be cut in mid-September or later, when the nights become cool enough to prevent mold growth. That means producers may need to graze in spring to set forage maturity back for September. Or, if annual forages are being used, they should be planted so the crop is mature by mid-September.
* Once hay is cut, it should be immediately raked into windrows while high in moisture to prevent heavy winds from scattering the hay.
Side-delivery rakes work well because they rope the wet hay together, says Brummer. If hay yield is light - 1-1 1/2 tons/acre - it may be necessary to rake more than two windrows together.
Form narrow (less than 4'-wide) windrows that have the density to keep most of the hay off the ground. Cutting at a higher level will leave stubble that can support the windrow and help keep hay off the ground.
A bigger pile also protrudes through the snow better and is easier for cows to find, he says. But if windrows get too big, cattle are more likely to bed on them.
* Portable electric fencing can be used to control the amount of forage cows have access to each day and prevent them from bedding on the windrows.
"For highest efficiency, I suggest moving the fence every other day," says Brummer.
A final tip: If the windrows are in an area that has snow cover through winter, Brummer suggests that the fence be oriented perpendicular to the windrow. That way, the end of each windrow will be exposed and accessible to grazing each time the fence is moved.
As long as some hay is exposed, animals have no trouble rooting through snow to uncover more.