Years ago, instead of making hay to carry our Angus herd through the winter, we stockpiled pasture and fed the standing hay through the dark months. This year, we decided to try the same experiment with the Highland cattle here in Kansas. The winters are milder here in Kansas than in Ohio, where we winter grazed the Angus cattle. And since the farm has way more grass than animals to eat it, I figured winter grazing the Highland cattle would work. In fact, it appears to be working quite well, so far, in spite of the snow and ice that has accumulated off and on in the last several weeks.
This morning it is already in the 50s, so it hardly feels like winter, but suffice it to say, there is plenty of good standing cool season forage (with about 25 percent green) in the lows, and more shaded areas. The warm season patches are completely dormant, and not good for much more than roughage, but the combination has been more than sufficient to keep the Highland's condition scores up and the young heifers and bull gaining and growing.
Winter grazing isn't for everyone, but I believe in letting cattle and other highly adapted domestic animals have a chance at fulfilling their genetic potentials ... I don't mind subdividing and carefully managing pastures year-round either. People are most skeptical about winter grazing because of the chance for snow cover. I have discovered that seeding some of the stockpiled pastures with small square or little Allis-Chalmers-made round bales is all you need to train the herd to look under the snow for sustenance. Alternatively, you can sprinkle some of their favorite range cubes (in front of them) in the snow on some of the tallest stockpile. In both cases, the cattle will inadvertently discover the good grass while rooting out their "treats." Once trained, the herd doesn't bat an eyelash when you ask them to get after the good grass under the snow.
Days like today make winter grazing a complete no brainer. Why on earth would I carry hay to them, when they can harvest the hay themselves? Winter grazing of some sort has the added benefit of spreading excess nutrients around. Instead of finding tons of manure around hay feeders, the Highland cattle deposit it wherever they happen to be ... the way nature intended it. When I have fed hay, I fed it to the cattle on the meadows it came from, in windrows and not in bale feeders. But that's a story for another day.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.