Let me paint you a winter pasture management picture. Here sits our grazier, indoors next to a cozy wood stove fire while the farm’s livestock graze contentedly on stockpiled forages and… what?
Oh yeah, that’s right, once again we had a dry fall period and instead of being able to stockpile forage growth, we actually overgrazed some of our pastures.
OK, well back to the easel and our winter pasture painting.
There goes our grazier, driving his tractor across frozen pasture fields to place some hay bales upon the frozen ground for the livestock to feed upon and…what?
The pasture ground isn’t frozen? The late arriving rains are creating soggy conditions and mud and ruts are just around the corner?
Gee, some winter painting this is turning out to be.
Mud sure doesn’t fit the idyllic image of a winter pasture scene.
As I write this article in early December, our temperatures have been conducive to frozen soils, but that is no guarantee this will be the pattern for the remainder of the winter.
All too familiar
Unfortunately the past number of years, at least in southern and southeastern Ohio, dealing with soggy pastures, mud and ruts, is the all too familiar winter pasture picture graziers are dealing with.
Saturated unfrozen soils, dormant pasture grasses and high animal pressure/hoof action is a formula for mud.
So, what’s the big deal about mud?
Well, for starters, muddy conditions, especially when it gets to hock level or deeper, increases the nutrient requirements of our livestock. Walking in it requires more energy and wet, cold mud can decrease the insulating ability of the animal’s winter coat.
Beyond this, I’ll suggest there are other economic, environmental and social costs which must be considered and factored into a management plan.
In our grazing management schools and during grazing council pasture walks, we talk about protecting the sod base of our pastures.
Through careful management, the productivity of that sod base can increase from year to year.
When soils don’t freeze in the winter and rain is more common than snow, a wrench is thrown into pasture management.
I have seen examples here in Athens County where experienced graziers have lost some productive grazing paddocks over the course of a couple of wet winters when the soil didn’t freeze and the sod base was destroyed as cattle wintered on stockpiled fescue/clover paddocks.
Once the sod base is destroyed the way is now open for weeds to come in.
Commonly it is the summer annual weeds such as pigweed, ragweed, lambsquarter, barnyard grass and goosegrass.
Overall productivity of these paddocks is decreased and grazing opportunities are lost.
Over time, and with careful grazing management, the sod base can be established and those weed problems brought under control, but often those pastures need to be returned to higher production more quickly.
Re-seeding those paddocks where the sod base has been destroyed is one option to return those paddocks to productivity, and it offers the opportunity to introduce improved plant genetics into the pasture.
This can be advantageous since many of the new forage species have higher yields, increased palatability and increased disease and drought resistance compared to forage genetics from 10, 20 or more years ago.
Even so, seed costs have jumped in recent years and there are fertilizer, lime and equipment costs associated with re-seeding.
My point here is while some good can result from destroying a sod base under wet winter grazing conditions, it is not a desired outcome year after year and there is an economic cost associated with restoring the sod base.
As I mentioned earlier, there are other costs which should be considered when pastures are abused under muddy conditions.
One of these is environmental. Once the sod has been opened up the underlying soil is no longer protected and, especially in hilly terrain, soil erosion becomes a concern.
When soil moves offsite there is a problem. Soil is a natural resource which is only very slowly regenerated.
Soil scientists have a term for soil loss they call the T factor. T is the soil loss tolerance factor.
It is defined as the maximum amount of erosion at which the quality of a soil as a medium for plant growth can be maintained.
The classes of T factor are one, two, three, four and five. The five classes range from one ton per acre per year for very shallow soil to five tons per acre per year for very deep soil that can more easily sustain productivity.
Here in Athens County, the soils on our hills are shallow, so the chances are if we can see visible erosion we are above the T factor.
While we may not always put a dollar cost on soil erosion, it is clear heavy animal pressure combined with muddy conditions can lead to significant soil losses due to soil erosion in hilly terrain.
Related to the environmental cost is what I will term social cost. Increasingly, farmers are expected to manage their land to protect and conserve the environment.
Along with that is growing public interest in how livestock are raised. As development continues and there is more rural-urban interface, neighbors with no farm background are watching what is happening in your livestock operation.
Generally, the picture raising livestock under a rotational grazing system presents to the public is favorable. The one time this picture changes is when mud is created.
Even though there may not be any environmental concerns from erosion, and even though livestock are being provided with hay and grain to meet their nutrient needs, to the non-farm background neighbors this can be viewed negatively.
There is a social cost to this type of situation. I believe increasingly farmers will have to think about this social cost. It is not easy to put a dollar value on this, but it is there.
In terms of what types of future agriculture legislation and public policy which may be proposed, it might be well worth thinking about winter pasture management and how mud problems can be minimized.
There are several winter pasture management options to deal with mud. One option is to install a heavy use-feeding pad. When conditions are such that mud will be a problem, livestock are fed on the pad.
If the soil is frozen, livestock can be fed or grazed on the pasture.
Talk to your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office about size and construction requirements. It may be possible to get cost-share dollars through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.
Decrease stocking density
Another option to minimize mud problems under winter pasture management is to decrease stocking density.
Letting livestock have access to more acreage, and frequently moving the area where hay is fed can reduce the extent of mud problems.
In some situations, it may be more practical to just set aside a sacrifice area which will become muddy and torn up.
Select this area with care. It should be an area that is relatively level with low soil erosion potential.
This option might be chosen if livestock density can’t be spread out enough to stop mud damage to a large percentage of the farm’s pasture paddocks and/or to paddocks which might incur significant soil erosion.
In this case, the grazier is choosing to minimize environmental damage, as well as minimizing renovation costs over a greater acreage.
The risk is the social cost. If this sacrifice area can be away from easy public viewing, this cost might also be reduced.
Once the normal rotation pattern is started in the spring, the sacrifice area can be left alone to let time take its course and allow the area to recover naturally, or the area can be renovated using improved pasture species.
Winter grazing management, particularly when stockpiled pasture is limited and/or the soil remains unfrozen, is a challenge to the grazier because sod can be destroyed and mud can be formed.
How those muddy conditions are planned for and managed have concrete economic costs in terms of animal performance, pasture productivity and pasture renovation.
However, the livestock grazier with a long-term view must also consider the environmental and social implications of dealing with winter mud conditions.