Selecting a winter feeding area

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I see a lot of pastures as I drive around Coshocton County going to and from various farm visits, and I have noticed that many still bear the scars of the horrid winter of 2018-19.

Near constant rain and temperatures that never stayed below freezing for any length of time created intense problems for anyone wintering livestock on pasture. Mud was the rule, and the resulting compaction from livestock hooves and hay feeding traffic held back plant growth for nearly the entire growing season in affected areas.

Just today I saw that this scenario was starting to happen again on a couple of farms that I passed. I thought that a brief overview of selecting a feeding area for animals wintered on pasture may help some farmers who are already dealing with mud heading into this winter.

Where to feed

The first decision is where to feed the animals, assuming that there is no stockpiled forage available to winter graze. Many folks feed hay where it is easiest to drop bales into the feeder, which is not always a bad thing depending on where the site is located.

A different option of feeding hay on pasture is to unroll round bales down the slope. The trick here is to move every time a bale is unrolled. This not only allows livestock to feed in a more spread out area, but also adds organic matter back into the soil and can reseed the pasture. If this is not possible, or conditions do not allow unrolling bales, then a specific site to feed should be established.

Some factors to consider when selecting a winter feeding area include the following: access to water, soil conditions (does the soil drain well?), topography and proximity to environmentally sensitive areas. Topography and soil conditions generally go hand in hand.

High and dry

We have a saying for our conservation planning work that we want to keep winter feeding areas “high and dry.” This means the higher up on the slope the better, but not necessarily right on top.

Flat ground on top of a ridge, or in a bottom, can increase water ponding and mud issues. Feeding on a gentle to moderate slope helps water to get away from the feeding area and increases the chances of soil drying out, but be careful because too steep of a slope will be prone to excessive soil erosion.

Selecting these sites on south or east-facing slopes can help shield livestock from cold north and west winds, and also make the best use of sunlight during the winter months.

Environmentally sensitive areas

One big thing to consider is where any environmentally sensitive areas are in the pasture. These can be streams, ditches, springs, ponds, and water wells. Feeding too close to any of these areas can lead to contaminating waters of the state (streams, ditches, ponds, wetlands) with runoff water from the feeding site, and could result in a pollution complaint. It is best to try and avoid this scenario right from the get go.

Get help

If you are struggling with winter feeding then there are several things your local Soil and Water Conservation District or NRCS representative can do to help you. A stone or concrete heavy use pad is a great option to feed on, and can concentrate manure for future removal. Stone access roads can make it much easier to feed hay as well.

Water development to the feed pad, or even just away from the stream or pond, can keep livestock out of environmentally sensitive areas during the winter season, and provide water of higher quality.

Your County Soil and Water Conservation District or NRCS representative can help to plan all of these practices, and through NRCS’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) there is cost share available to farmers who qualify. Contact your county Soil and Water, or NRCS office for more details about this program.

I understand that wintering livestock on pasture can be a challenge in the best of years, and most of us are facing an uphill battle maintaining animal condition due to the quality of hay that we made this year.

If anything in this short write up has you thinking you would like to make a change to your winter feeding style please let the Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS in your county know. They will be happy to help you figure out a solution on your farm.

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