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Winter Feeding Tips to Get You Through

Whether you are grazing stockpiled forages, or feeding hay or other feed, some winter days are more challenging than others for both the producer and the livestock.  So here are a few tips we hope will make it easier for everyone.

Snow, Ice and Quality Stockpiled Forage

Photo courtesy of Utah State University
Photo courtesy of Utah State University

I’m sure the livestock might think that this forage or feed stuff with frost, snow, ice or combination, would have been nice a few days last August instead of now.  Still, it always surprises me how snow is usually no issue for them. If the quality of the stockpiled forage is good, then they will go after it…even if hay is provided. The quality of good stockpiled forage can easily be better than hay because too much hay is still cut and baled for yield, not quality. Given a choice, the livestock will choose the better of the two.

Ice, or enough ice to prevent grazing, is probably the number one reason to pull up stakes and move to some hay or other feed. Deep snow is next. How deep is too deep? That depends on two things, the livestock grazing it and the amount of forage present. Experienced animals, those that have done it before, won’t even hesitate; they know where dinner is and go after it. If you watch the younger, less experienced animals, they tend to eat first where others have been eating and then they soon figure it all out. Smaller ruminants, especially sheep, tend to have less issue with snow and are quite good at digging it out with their hooves. I’ve observed deer doing the same thing; they also are quite good in digging up turnip bulbs out of frozen ground. The amount of forage present becomes more critical as the amount of snow increases; the more forage present, the easier it is to get to.

For good animal performance, pay attention to the quality of your stockpiled forage.  Energy is usually the shortfall, and protein second if includes too much mature forage. Growing and lactating animals may need supplementation. Winter annuals such as brassicas (turnips, kale), and cereal grains will do a better job of maintaining enough energy and protein for those animals needing more.  Either might be good things to consider adding to your pastures if you’re looking at stretching your grazing season.

Plan B…C…or?

Bale grazing photo from the Department of Agriculture, Government of Saskatchewan
Bale grazing photo from the Department of Agriculture, Government of Saskatchewan

Most producers are feeding hay or other feed by this time of year and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. There are on the other hand, producers that want to reduce the amount of fed products and would rather move temporary fences than get a tractor out. Which ever you’ve chosen, remember everyone still needs a contingency plan!

Weather can surprise us, even with the best of planning, and quickly force you into plan B…or C, IF you’ve got a plan B or C. I’ve found that it is just best to be ready and prepared ahead of time in case of short notice on changing weather.  Stationing large round bales of hay in good locations in advance, is a good way to do this.  Put them close to where you are grazing, even in a portion of that pasture, especially an area that could benefit from added nutrients and or organic matter.  Set them in a pattern that let’s you easily allocate them to your livestock as needed by simply moving a temporary fence. You’ll feed your livestock while you put nutrients back where they are needed without building any permanent fencing.

Are You Happy With Your Feeding Sites?

Mud, along with wet cold weather, really increases livestock energy needs. For the pocketbook, the producer, and livestock, good feeding or grazing conditions are important.  Permanent winter feeding areas should ideally be in an area with some wind break, a good winter watering source, on a well-drained soil/site, and where runoff and manure/waste feed can be managed. This means away from water bodies or with adequate buffers and usually with rock or concrete pads to feed on.  If you’re noticing your site doesn’t measure up, put improvements on your list of things to do before next winter.  It could be as easy as adding rock padded areas.

For those of you feeding stockpiled feeds, make sure they are sufficiently heavy so that animals aren’t making mud and causing themselves discomfort.  It may be too late to fix things this year, but just noting changes for the future will help you build stockpiles for next year.

Stay warm out there!

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.


  1. WOW! 4 years ago it started to get muddy in November and the got wet. I put cow carpet in under toned described above, wow what a difference, I believe I saved enough in feed the first year to offset the cost. Then set fence line feeders as recommended by NRCS and worked with NRCS to plan pipelines and winter waters. They cost shared materials and I spent summer installing. WOW! That was a lot of work! So what? Moved every one in from pasture yesterday, February 14, the most peasant winter ever WOW. Looking forward to getting back on the pastures in 60 days ish. So what? It all started with a commitment to improve winter feeding area. WOW thanks Victor and Tim, local district conservationist, it changed our lives. As every article suggests, call your local NRCS and share your vision and listen. I met Vitor in March at a conference before ordering cow carpet. WOW getting better does not require bigger.

    • Thanks George. Producers should take advantage of available programs – that is what they are there for. Following through with the plan and keeping animals and forage in balance is what really makes it all successful!

    • Rock pads are always best built during dry weather – generally months before we need them. Remove topsoil and any organic matter, level, cover with 8- or 10-ounce geofabric felt. This will drain, but it won’t tear. Cover with a limestone mix that has lime in it, such as 53’s. You’ll need at least 6 inches of them packed. Pack well. Top with a couple inches of Ag-lime and pack again. These scrape and clean well once packed and used. Your local soil and water conservation office or NRCS should be able to help.

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