Winter Warriors: North American Ranchers Graze Livestock Longer With These Alternative Methods
Graziers are an enterprising bunch. When Mother Nature sends challenges their way, they find hacks - some simple, others more complicated - for overcoming them. For many producers, extending their grazing season is one simple way they can save both time and money during the colder months.
How pasture managers go about lengthening their grazing seasons will vary by region, but the goal is the same nonetheless - graze more and feed less (hay). To give some perspective on how this approach differs by region, we sat down with three experienced graziers from across North America to pick their brains about what management strategies and fencing tips work best for them to get them through the chillier months of the year.
Stockpiling forage in the Southeast
Our journey starts in the Southeast with North Carolina cattleman, Johnny Rogers. During winter, Rogers strip grazes his mixed herd of Red Angus brood cows and Katahdin hair sheep primarily on stockpiled tall fescue. He supplements his winter grazing with cool-season annual cover crops like oats, triticale, ryegrass, and crimson clover. Explaining his setup, Rogers says he prefers turbo wire and step-in posts to subdivides larger pastures. He breaks each pasture into lanes approximately 200 feet wide using one to two strands of turbo wire.
“This allows us to allocate the acres (or a percentage of an acre) every one to three days,” notes Rogers. “In some cases, we will use two strands of turbo wire to construct the lanes to restrict our calves to only a portion of the field. They can damage forage if given access to the whole field.”
Rogers stresses he’s found high-quality fencing materials are a must-have for daily moves. “Buy good equipment or you will become frustrated because it does not work well and you will stop using it,” says Rogers.
Along with turbo wire and step-in posts, Rogers uses fiberglass posts for temporary corner posts. Geared reels make stringing out turbo wire for new fence easy and a fence compass comes in handy to check adequate power is on the fence when he’s out making his daily rounds.
Additionally, Rogers created a homemade attachment for his ATV to help make putting out wire and posts easier. Despite it’s time-saving benefits, however, he jokes that walking to put up fence is still great exercise.
The biggest challenge Rogers personally faces with winter grazing, however, is ice. “It’s a real problem because it weighs down the turbo wire,” says Rogers. “We’ve found that holding a post while it is attached to the turbo wire and walking down the fence row will help remove the ice from the wire.
Despite the ice and colder temperatures, Rogers suggest winter time can be a great time for producers new to managed grazing to get started.
“The payoff is substantial since the alternative is feeding expensive hay,” says Rogers.
Grazing windrows in Wyoming
In Wyoming, Shanon Sims of Sims Cattle Company utilizes swath grazing to get his 650 head of mother cows, plus heifers and steers, through the bulk of winter in his northeast corner of the Cowboy State. This form of winter grazing involves feeding animals from windrowed hay that is cut, raked, and stockpiled in-field earlier in the year.
The Sims family were inspired to try swath grazing by the Deseret Ranch in Utah. To date, they have been using this method for well over 20 years. They begin grazing their herd on windrows around mid-December. In some cases, such as drought, they may begin as early as November 1st.
Explaining his setup, Sims says, “We cross-fence windrowed hay to create three to five day grazing paddocks. Because the grass is dormant and ground frozen, we aren’t worried about creating herd impact. We have found, however, longer grazing rotations encourage bedding and fouling in the hay.”
Sims points out, the permanent pasture size and growth pattern of their forages makes it rarely necessary to back fence any paddocks. They typically start grazing each field near a water source and strategically expand the grazing area away from it with each rotation. The swath grazing season concludes by mid March to early April.
“We’ve found that the windrows become too wet with spring snow and thawing, causing the cows to reject them,” says Sims. “At that point, we feed processed hay for 45-60 days, still rotating through pastures and feeding the hay specifically produced in each individual pasture.”
Like Rogers, the Sims prefer step-in posts and turbo wire for their fencing needs. “Gallagher ring-top step-in posts are worth the money,” says Sims. “The small diameter make them easy to step-in, even in our rocks and frozen ground, and the split ring design make the wire easy to install and remove on the go.”
For small pasture divisions, Sims uses Gallagher Turbo Wire. Half-mile cable spools of turbo wire are used for longer stretches and where elk are actively moving. He notes the ground is rarely frozen underneath windrows, so planning fence placement so posts are in windrows also helps to make fencing easier.
Regional winter challenges for the Sims operation include wind and deep snow. “It’s not unusual to have 50+ mph gusts and sub-freezing temperatures,” says Sims. “We spend a lot of time planning our grazing moves in a way that allows us to rapidly move from an unprotected pasture to a pasture with protection.”
Grazing planning far in advance also allows the Sims to be prepared when deep snow arrives.
“We are always near enough to windrows to allow us to quickly utilize them when snow gets deep,” says Sims. “I have yet to see snow deep enough that cows won’t push through to find windrows!”
Manitoba is made for bale grazing
Our winter grazing tour ends in Canada's historic Assiniboine River valley near Shellmouth, Manitoba. There Nerbas Bros. Angus, a multi-generational ranching operation, has found bale grazing to be a cost-effective, time-saving way to get their cowherd through the frigid, long winters common in their northern climate.
An added bonus, Shane Nerbas points out is the practice is also a huge benefit to their land’s health. After 15 years of bale grazing, he says he’s noticed hay waste and manure deposited back onto the pasture have an additive effect on soil health in lower quality pastures.
“Anything leftover is considered biological capital to us,” says Nerbas.
Shane and his brother, Arron, run approximately 600 head of cows and up to 300 yearlings on their cow-calf operation. They start bale grazing the herd typically around December 1st. Their setup includes 12 paddocks with a central watering system which connects to each. Every year, six different paddocks are chosen to set bales up in. Poorer pieces of ground, such as those with thinning forage, bare spots, or less productive yields, are given top priority. Bales are placed in the fall, usually before early October.
“One thing people should keep in mind when bale grazing,” says Nerbas, “is to remove all twines from bales before the cold weather sets in.”
The brothers set-up each paddock with enough bales for 21 days. Each is constructed with wooden posts and single-strand high-tensile wire. Every 21 days, cattle are moved to the next paddock. While they note shorter or longer durations can be used, Nerbas has found the 21-day rule to work best for their situation.
Late in the winter season as weather gets milder Nerbas explains cattle may be limit fed bales to improve feed utilization. Freezing and thawing often lead to more waste and fouling of hay. Limit feeding helps to reduce these losses.
For those wanting to give bale grazing or other winter grazing methods a try on their own operation, Nerbas emphasizes it’s important producers break the mentality that leaving forage behind after grazing an area is a waste.
"Don't look at it as a waste, but as capital you are building your land with,” says Nerbas. Additionally, producers new to managed grazing may want to start small.
“Not every situation will be the same for everyone,” says Nerbas, “but it is vital in today’s cattle industry to keep your costs down however you can.”