If anyone should be experts in winter grazing where snow is a big part of the picture, it ought to be our Canadian friends to the north.
Canada’s Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) recently provided information on planning a successful extended grazing management scheme. The top priorities included forage quality, fencing, water, and shelter.
Livestock expend 18 to 20 percent more energy to harvest feed while grazing compared to a dry lot system. Any stress that is imposed on cattle can take a large performance toll.
Snow, as a water source, may be part of the answer, but it’s certainly not the whole answer. According to BCRC, adapted nonlactating beef cows will consume snow in amounts equivalent to the intake of cows receiving water. They can meet their water requirements as long as the snow is adequate in quality and quantity, but the snow must be clean, loose, noncrusted, and deep enough to cover the ground.
Snow shouldn’t be used as the sole water source for cattle that are lactating, newly weaned, have a body condition score of less than 2.5, or don't have access to optimal feed resources.
Changing weather conditions can cause snow to disappear quickly, and the quality of snow as a water source will deteriorate due to blowing wind, thawing, refreezing, and crusting. Snow conditions need to be checked regularly. There always needs to be an alternative source of water that can be accessed quickly if snow quantity or quality deteriorate.
BCRC researchers suggest, “The biggest stress for cattle eating snow is during the transition period. Cattle that have not eaten snow and have only consumed water will often vocalize to show discontent. After a day or two, the herd learns from those that are early adapters.”
Cows are able to graze through significant amounts of soft snow; however, wind-swept or severely crusted snow makes grazing difficult or impossible. If the snow is too hard or crystallized, the animal's nose becomes tender and lower leg hair can be rubbed off.
If the snow becomes too hard or too deep, it may be physically impossible for the herd to access forage.
In addition to managing the water resources, BCRC researchers suggest these tips for extended winter grazing:
1. Implement some type of strip grazing system with movable electric fencing. This will provide a more uniform diet than by grazing an entire field at once.
2. Keep a close eye on calves, thin cows, young cows, and cows with calves at their side. During winter, these types of animals may require supplemental feeding, especially if severe weather moves in.
3. Know the quality of your forage. Test feeds you plan to utilize during winter and be sure to meet the needs of the type of animals you are feeding. Protein and energy requirements for mature pregnant cows increase during the second and third trimester.
4. If possible, select a pasture that offers some sort of wind protection. This can be a natural barrier or a portable windbreak fence.