As we enter into the beginnings of New Zealand’s winter months, it is essential to address the practice of winter grazing your cattle. There are many proven strategies to implement to improve the health of your animals and your pastures during the gruelling winter conditions and navigate your livestock through to a flourishing and thriving spring.

Prepare high quality pastures for winter grazing your cows. Grazing your livestock throughout the winter can pose many challenges and risks to both your cattle and your land. Prepare yourself, your pastures and your livestock for the increased extreme elements of winter for a successful winter grazing season.

Whether you choose to rotate your pasture grazing, initiate a sacrifice paddock or opt for an enviable safe, warm, high performing and cash flow efficient SmartShelter composting barn. Stay well informed to keep your cattle and your pastures healthy during the cold winter months.

Can cows still graze in the winter?

Cows are resilient animals in most climates and winter conditions are no exception. Snow on the ground does not always mean the grazing season ends and won’t stop the cows from digging to get to the grass. Cattle have the ability to dig through the snow as long as it’s light and fluffy and not deeper than about a foot. Wet snow or drifted snow is a lot harder for the sheep to get to and iced over snow is a no go. Grass growth comes to a standstill in these conditions however, so available grazing will soon run out.

However, that being said, dairy cattle are more sensitive to weather conditions due to the energy they need to produce milk. Decline in milk production due to cold stress has been proven to be of greater magnitude than that of heat stress.

Be careful to prevent overgrazing at this time of year. If you have too many animals on a small plot of land or allowing them to graze for too long once the pastures have stopped growing can raise many issues such as hungry cows, damaged roots and erosion. This can lead to muddy pastures, nutrient run-off, lameness and higher costs associated with having to provide more hay or silage late into the spring while you wait for the pastures to recover.

Where do you keep cows in the winter?

While cows can be grazed in pastures into the winter months, it’s a lot safer, warmer and more productive to keep them in a purpose built shelter.

Providing your herd with protection, particularly in often harsh and hostile New Zealand conditions, is best practice for many reasons. This is particularly the case for cows bred for optimum dairy genetics, as the very DNA that allows them to produce such high yields tends to leave them susceptible to weather extremes, as they focus their energy on milk production rather than on hardiness.

What’s more, providing your property with a hub from which to maintain your herd will allow you to maximise your investment.

If your farm is in the lowlands and you’re lucky enough to not be bombarded with numerous feet of the white stuff, it is possible to keep your cows grazing throughout the winter months, or at least until the weather declines past optimal standards. This is an excellent time of year to consider rotational grazing practices or adopting a sacrifice paddock to enable your other pastures to rejuvenate.

Once you are convinced that your pasture has given up growing, bring your cows in from the fields. Our livestock shelters are designed to keep your animals warm, safe and comfortable during the winter months and keep the stress off your pastures and give them the break they need to thrive during the next season.

Winter Grazing Strategies for Cattle

Your goal in winter is to set up both your cows and your pastures for a productive spring. An effective wintering system supports good animal health and welfare above all but in addition to this it minimises soil and nutrient loss to the environment, protects valuable topsoil and complements the dairy farm system. You can also ensure you have a contingency plan for periods of adverse weather and comply with the regional council regulations.

Creating winter plans

Having a winter grazing plan creates clear expectations for your whole team, proves best practice and identifies room for improvement. Some key strategies you can implement and prepare for this winter include:

  • Identify critical source areas (CSA’s) on your farm that collect surface water. Nutrients can pool and seep into waterways or groundwater from these areas. Graze these areas last and fence them off at the beginning of winter to prevent overgrazing.
  • Plan the direction of grazing, if you are grazing on slopes plant the crops across the slope rather than top to bottom. This strategy minimises loss of nutrients and reduces nitrogen leaching into waterways. Create buffers of around 25 metres between crop and waterways to catch any runoff.
  • Optimal bale placement can reduce build up of mud in the paddock while keeping your cattle away from waterways and CSA’s and save your team time and energy.
  • Limit your cattle movement with portable troughs and back fences to reduce soil damage, promote regrowth and preserve much needed energy for temperature fluctuations.
  • Provide areas for shelter planted with crops or provided with baleage during adverse weather to protect your cattle and preserve their energy.

Selecting appropriate paddocks

It’s important to choose your paddocks carefully for optimal grazing in the winter months and to ensure a successful winter. Choosing the right paddocks can significantly affect the yield of the crop and the cost of establishing and growing the crop.

Keep in mind the risk factor of each paddock and consider options to mitigate the risk where you can. Factors to consider include:

  • Slope – whether it’s flat (less than 7°), rolling (7-15°) or steep (more than 15°) Stay clear of slopes more than 10° to avoid run off and build up of mud.
  • Soil type – is it light, medium or heavy? Plant crops in resilient soil areas
  • Winter rainfall – how much rainfall do you get in the winter?
  • Waterways – if they have them are they alongside or inside the paddock?
  • Critical source areas – if the paddock has one does it drain to the grass or drain to a waterway?
  • Shelter – What shelter is available? Plant crops in areas with good shelter to protect cattle from the elements. If there is little shelter, allow for a feed buffer for extra feed on the colder days.
  • Paddock history – what is the soil fertility and are there any weed, pest disease or nutrient issues?
  • Ease of management – how many access points are there and does it have access to reticulated water?

Identifying CSA’s and creating buffers

Critical source areas or CSA’s are parts of the landscape of farms such as gullies or swales where runoff collects into channels of running water which usually flow into streams and rivers. CSA’s can transport large quantities of soil, phosphorus and E.coli into waterways. During the winter months when runoff and leaching are at their peak, it’s important to create buffer zones around these areas to significantly reduce losses to the surface and prevent leaching.

Creating buffers of grass and other forage provide a filter to slow down water movement and allow it time to soak into the soil rather than seeping into waterways.

What is the Best Winter Forage for Cattle?

A lot of New Zealand farmers transition their cattle to crops such as kale, fodder beet, swedes during the winter months. Small grains such as cereals: wheat and rye are major grains used for cattle winter grazing as they have the best cold tolerance of all the grains and grow well with marginal soil temperatures. On top of these grains some of the most well-known legumes for cattle are alfalfa and clover. They grow very well with other grasses and grains. As many legume varieties grow densely, by growing enough of them you can cut down on unwanted weeds while boosting soil integrity and nutrient needs for your cattle.

Choosing suitable crops

Whether you choose:

  • Cereal species – such as wheat and rye have the best cold tolerance and grow well with marginal soil temperatures.
  • Fodder beet – consistent and high quality feed with low nutrient content and long shelf life is good for winter farming and reducing nitrate leaching.
  • Kale – has a deep root system and a tolerance to most pests, club root and dry rot making it a great winter feed.
  • Swedes – are a typical winter feed crop in New Zealand as they have a low tolerance to drought and perform best in cooler, moist environments but they are susceptible to club rot and dry rot.
  • Turnips – can be sown year round depending on the cultivar, there are different types that fare well in summer and others in winter.

How Much Feed Intake Do Cows Need per Day in the Winter?

Cows, like most animals living predominantly outdoors, will need to consume a lot more food in the winter months to keep their body temperature at optimal levels for the colder weather. When temperatures reach below freezing cows will likely consume between 3% and 10% more to keep their energy levels optimal for growth.

A common rule of thumb to follow is that during optimal mild temperatures cows will likely consume 2.5% of their body weight whereas during severe cold temperatures they will be more likely to consure 3.5% of their body weight.

During severely cold temperatures such as a wind chill of -28C and below, the feed intake will likely be lower due to the reluctance of cattle leaving any sheltered areas. At this point feeds with higher digestibility or better quality forage should be fed to the cattle to compensate for increased energy needs.

Loss of nutrients and feed intake during cold periods could have significant consequences on their health, especially for pregnant cows. Cows without sufficient feed intake may have difficulty calving and produce lower-quality colostrum, which will affect calf health.

Winter Grazing Solutions

There’s a lot of views out there as to whether pasture grazing is better than animal housing systems during the winter for livestock and in most traditional farm shelter designs there is significant evidence of health risks to your cattle as well as extra costs for replacing bedding.

However, at SmartShelters we have the solution. Our composting barns are designed to improve herd health and productivity rather than compromise it while in the meantime saving you money.

Our loyal clients have tried and tested these major advantages of wintering cows in a SmartShelters barn including:

  • The use of our aerobic system of ‘good bugs’ compost any effluent, it keeps the bedding dry and you only need to change it once a year.
  • The compost produced by the barn can then be used as a nutrient rich fertiliser for your pastures.
  • Cows housed in a dry, warmer environment require less feed, saving money
  • Cows housed in a SmartShelters barn maintain a better body condition score (BCS), giving them a head-start on the next season
  • Cows housed in a SmartShelters barn produce stronger, healthier calves
  • Illness and lameness issues are greatly reduced
  • Management of the herd is much simpler and requires less labour
  • Nutrient loss issues and effluent runoff are eliminated, as all effluent is captured in the bedding pack
  • Pasture growth is given a head start for the season, as the soil has not been damaged through the wet period by cow foot traffic

SmartShelters livestock barns are the ultimate solution to effective winter grazing. Once you are convinced that your pasture has given up growing, bring your cattle in from the fields. A custom built livestock barn will take the pressure off your pastures, decrease effluent run-off and significantly improve the environmental impact of your farm. Likewise, you’ll have happy cows and you can appreciate much higher performance levels due the comfort of your herd.