Image Credit: Vladislav Nikitin
Although livestock bedding and shelter are extremely important when managing a conventional winter feed program that requires cattle to be kept in confined areas, neither traditional cattle bedding or shelter are necessary when cattle are grazing in a winter rotational grazing program that uses a daily pasture rotation.
Your pastures can provide all the bedding and cattle shelter that your cattle will need during your winter grazing program as long as you pre-plan the flow of your winter pasture rotation to make use of natural bedding and shelter available on your farm to overcome the weather challenges that your cattle will face during the winter grazing season.
A daily winter pasture rotation allows you to avoid all of the high costs normally associated with cattle bedding and shelter. In fact, in a winter rotational grazing program, traditional livestock bedding is actually a health liability, not an asset, as you will learn in this article.
Cattle that participate in a winter rotational grazing program must be calved out on pasture after the growing season has begun, timed to give the cows time to fatten up on grass before they calve. I discuss this further in the article about raising beef cattle on grass and at length in the Grass-fed Cattle book.
Since your grass-fed production plan should not allow you to calve outside of the growing season, the issues about calves and dirty udders automatically do not apply. With calves born on lush green pasture, udders are automatically kept clean. Dirty udders are a problem in winter feed pens and in the muddy spring, not on lush, green, growing pastures.
Daily pasture slices provide your cattle with fresh clean winter pasture to sleep in every day. As long as your cattle have access to fresh pasture every day and are restricted by a back fence from returning to favourite bedding areas to ruminate and sleep, they will always have fresh pasture to bed down in to ruminate and sleep.
Daily pasture moves mean that your are always on 'clean' ground or on clean snow (which has extremely high insulation qualities) and are not exposed to wet mud, ice build-up (which has zero insulating qualities), and manure concentrations, which are typical in conventional winter feed areas.
Like all other wild animals, as long as you pick beef cattle breeds that are suited to your environment*, your cattle will be perfectly adapted to sleeping in snowy winter pastures as long as:
You should work with a nutritionist (see below) to monitor that your cattle are receiving sufficient calories from their pastures and supplements to stay warm. During extremely cold periods you can simply mix a few extra energy-rich supplements into their mineral feeder to help them through the cold snap.
Use a livestock nutritionist to calculate your cattle's nutrition requirements throughout the winter based on the forage analyses that you take of your pasture grasses each month. Your nutritionist's calculations will reveal when your pastures have sufficient protein and energy for grazing and when you need to add a few extra nutrition supplements to their mineral mix to make up for any shortfalls in the pasture quality.
As long as your pastures were good quality at the end of the growing season (high in protein and energy), it usually only takes a very minimal amount of feed supplements added to the mineral mix to make up for minor shortfalls during the winter rotational grazing season.
As long as the cattle are able to stay dry (i.e. not bed down in mud or manure) they will stay warm. Their hair coat is well adapted to shedding rain water. And their winter hair and the thick fat layer on their back provides so much insulation that it is not uncommon to see snow pile up on cows' backs without melting. The snow only adds an additional layer of insulation against the elements!...
But if cattle have to bed down in standing water or water-logged pastures, then their hair is pressed tight against their body and the the moisture is able to soak all the way to their skin, chilling them. Rain or wet snow is not a problem if your cattle are matched to your climate. But if your cattle have to bed down in soggy pastures or standing water, then they will not be able to stay warm.
Consequently, your winter grazing plan should save soggy pastures or pastures prone to flooding for the middle of winter when the ground is frozen. Or, plan to provide your cattle with access to some high ground to bed down on if you must graze water-logged pastures during your winter rotational grazing program.
Bedding down in each day's fresh pasture slice will keep your cattle healthiest because the cattle are not concentrated together and exposed to disease-carrying manure concentrations.
Providing livestock bedding or artificial cattle shelters encourages the cattle to congregate together, which increases the risk that the cattle will lay down on manure. The acidity in manure is hard on the skin. Caked-on manure is wet and destroys the insulating qualities of your cattle's hair coats. Hair coated by manure exposes the cattle to disease pathogens when they groom themselves by licking themselves or one another. And manure caked onto udders exposes calves to dangerous bacteria when they drink.
In short, congregating cattle together dramatically increases the risk of diseases in your cattle herd. Livestock bedding is unavoidable in confinement feed areas because there is no-where else to bed down, but it is very expensive and labor-intensive to provide sufficient bedding and continually keep it fresh in order to manage the increased risk of disease transmission that results from cattle congregating on livestock bedding sites.
In a well-managed winter grazing program, livestock bedding simply isn't needed. Winter grazing (combined with a calving season scheduled during the growing season) allows you to eliminate the high costs of buying or growing bedding, transporting it, and refreshing it daily. And your winter pasture rotation allows you to avoid all the disease risks associated with creating livestock bedding sites that entice cattle to congregate together on bedding sites where they continually risk laying in disease-transmitting manure.
Cattle are healthier on pasture as long as the pasture is sufficiently nutrient-rich to provide for all their nutritional needs. As every conventional beef producer knows, the disease pressures start every fall the moment that their cattle are brought in from pasture and confined into their winter feed pens. That's the moment that farmers prepare for and stock up their veterinary supplies.
You can completely sidestep all the health risks associated with confined winter feed areas and congregating cattle on livestock bedding sites when you keep your cattle out in a daily winter pasture rotation. That means calving during the growing season, preparing your pastures for intensive grazing during the winter, and learning how to continue your intensive grazing program during the winter months even when the pastures are covered in snow.
Grazing during the winter does mean you need to plan ahead to provide some form of natural cattle shelter during periods of extreme cold. This doesn't mean you need to house your cattle in a barn or build cattle sheds for them. They just need some kind of wind break to avoid the wind chill and an area to bed down in that has sufficient vegetation and/or snow cover to provide just a little more insulation and protection from the elements until the cold snap breaks.
Save some treed areas for the cattle to graze during extremely cold snaps or when there is a high wind chill. Simply having access to timber when the weather gets really cold will remove the wind chill, which raises temperatures sufficiently to keep the cattle from getting chilled.
If you've ever been outside during high winds at 20 below, you know how much of a difference simply stepping into the cover of timber makes. After being exposed to the winds it will feel almost pleasant to bed down with a dozen or more cattle beside you inside the shelter of the trees. So designate a few sheltered grazing areas in your winter grazing plan specifically for periods of extreme cold or high wind chill.
And when you're ready to start planning your cattle farm, check out my book: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef