Yet Another Look At Winter Grazing


Over the years I have become very intrigued with the idea of grazing livestock year-round in the north, even though I have found as many negative things to say about the idea as positive. My thinking has been that wild cud-chewers and horses make it through winter just fine unless they become over-populated, so why not cows and sheep? Farmers and ranchers have long overwintered horses and beef cows on cornstalks sticking above the snow for at least part of the wintertime. But the best I’ve been able to do is make it to Christmas time on winter grazing alone, and then certainly not for milk cows where high production often demands more than what winter grazing can provide.

But we have had a very open, mild winter in much of the Midwest this year, and I was able to stretch the grazing season for my sheep until Jan. 20 without any supplemental feed. How so? I had decided last spring to turn one of the pasture plots into a woodlot and so did not graze it all summer to keep the sheep from eating seedling trees I had started there. Something peculiar happened in the plot. Lots of weeds and various kinds of wild grasses came up, of course. But the bluegrass that was always present started growing vigorously in the fall because of all the rain and then it kept growing into the mild winter. I mean really lush, green grass.

At Christmas time, after the sheep had grazed down the green lush growth in the other pasture plots, I turned them into the seedling tree lot. They ate that bluegrass right down to the mud and did not bother the trees, which by this time of course had lost all their leaves. I tried to feed some hay about Jan. 10, but the sheep turned their noses up at it and went back to the bluegrass. It wasn’t until Jan. 20 that they would eat hay.

We are not going to get many winters like this one, of course, but when one does come along, might as well take advantage of it. I am especially elated to pass this along because, as readers of this blog know, I think bluegrass is a better forage than many graziers give it credit for. Because it will go dormant in dry August weather, bluegrass gets a bad rap. I say it makes up for that with lots of early spring and late fall forage. And now, I see, winter feed too. If I were young and foolish again, I would think seriously of a pasture system fortified with sprinkler irrigation so that I could take full advantage of bluegrass.

The other benefit from this arrangement is that it means a plot planted to trees need not be lost for grazing purposes. It can be grazed in winter when the trees have lost their leaves and do not tempt animals to browse them as much. This is really a tremendous possibility that I have not heard emphasized. After the trees get above the reach of the livestock, then the plots can be grazed all year.

The negative side of winter grazing when temperatures stay mild is that the soil surface remains soft and muddy. Heavy cows and horses will just trample it to ruination. A smaller flock of sheep or other grazing animals of that size are not nearly as destructive however. In the perfect world I envisage where all husbandry is based on grazing, perhaps sheep and goats will become the principle milk producers, not cows, which solves the trampling problem.

The other wrinkle in current farming that could benefit winter grazing is radishes. A new idea much in vogue at the moment is planting a winter cover crop of white radishes. The big roots hold the nitrogen in the soil over winter, and then rot quickly after spring cultivation so that soil nutrients are then ready for the corn to follow. This practice is being done mostly by large grain farmers, but actually grazing animals could be turned into the radishes, which stay green through the first half of winter, without lessening the nutrient-saving effect of the plants. Also, grazing would cut down on the godawful smell of those radish roots rotting in early spring thaw.



You’re absolutely right about this video–thank you so much!

Anyone interested in grazing, winter and otherwise, owe it to yourself and your animals to check out this video.

Also see Holistic Management International and the work of Alan Savory.

Cheyenne Christianson runs a 100% grass-fed Holstein dairy in Northern Wisconsin; They graze pastures and annuals year round. So it can be done and is done in one of the most challenging winter environments in the lower 48.

Some grazers have found that plugging problems go away when you manage your pastures in a healthy way. Others have found plugging is mainly a problem in rainy weather and so they put cows on sacrifice paddocks and use it as an opportunity to renovate that section.

I would love to find a grass that holds up late in NH. We are trying to push back our woodland, and encourage our small flock of sheep, goats, and Randall cattle to eat any and all saplings, but it would be great if we could under plant the perimeter and move it inward each year to clear out the undergrowth.

Organic farmers also raising animals may try growing some sainfoin too. About the same protein content as alfalfa (that is, 3 times more than corn), does not cause bloat, apparently the most palatable hay to all animals (sainfoin means ‘healthy hay’ in French), even wild ones like game, rabbits and grouse.
Unfortunately, it can only be harvested twice a year, so it’s not for everybody.

Wise acres, love it!

Gene, this is a timely post for me. Saturday I went to visit my starter herd of Tennessee feinting goat doelings. I’m so excited, I can hardly stand it but have to wait til they’re weaned.

I’ve been thinking about their feed–I have plenty of brush for them to clean up and wonder if I can get by without feeding them through the spring, summer and fall–think I can. I’m also thinking about the wild goats all over Australia and Jaimaca, etc. that have escaped into the wild and maintained themselves in all seasons. If I keep my herd small, maybe middle Tennessee can produce most of their feed. We’ll see. I know they’re different from sheep and would eat your little tree seedlings. (Makes me wonder about mixing goats and sheep as I plan to sell the kids as soon as they’re weaned as you do?)

Having years of experience with bees that I never feed either sugar water or pollen patties and that thrive despite my neglect and also years with a small chicken flock that I treat like wild turkeys–they feed themselves and roost in the trees and still produce lots of eggs with hard shells, I think maybe alot of animals don’t need so much of the fake formula feeds or grains that Purina and others would have us believe they need.

Also wanted you to know I’m enjoying as winter reading your updated book on raising grains–thinking that even as old as I am, I can grow enough dent corn to feed my little chicken flock in the worst days of winter. Am also reading with an eye on how to maintain the goats in hard times.


PS: Loved the pee and tears posts but glad the body fluids have dried up–ha!

As a NW OH seasonal dairy cow grazer -meaning all our cows are dry at the same time in the winter and we graze whenever fit, this has been the worst possible winter! I appreciated the mild days (no frozen water tanks and other evils), but the grass I had frugally stockpiled last fall stands untouched. This heavy winter stand of grass will thwart efforts to frost seed clover and perhaps even deter early spring growth. We rely on frozen ground, because as Gene mentioned, cows destroy soft ground! The disappointed cows have stood in the barnyard all winter (save a few hours, a few mornings) staring at the thick grass they weren’t allowed to graze. The disappointed dairy grazer studied the shrinking feed budget with consternation because as a result, too much money was spent on winter hay that was hard to find and very expensive.

I agree with Gene that the most sustainable milk surely is from two- teated animals (goat, sheep), but unfortunately there is no longer a commercial goat milk market in this area and goat milk seems to be an acquired taste for many. I get daily phone calls from self- sufficient folks looking for a good family milk cow. However, with the current upward price trends for corn and now hay, we may all be drinking goat or sheep milk, as those of us with small dairies struggle to stay afloat.

So with all due respect, Gene, I am hoping for cold temps and frozen ground-well maybe next year at this point!

wise acres dairy farm

“The negative side of winter grazing when temperatures stay mild is that the soil surface remains soft and muddy. Heavy cows and horses will just trample it to ruination. A smaller flock of sheep or other grazing animals of that size are not nearly as destructive… perhaps sheep and goats will become the principle milk producers, not cows, which solves the trampling problem.”

It would, except our Nubians (of African desert decent) are so terrified of water that they bolt for the barn at the first sign of a cloud in the sky. They will no more walk on soggy ground then they would on hot coals!

Perhaps some of the Swiss goat breeds would make better winter foragers, but ours are content to let us haul hay to them even while new grass is springing up out of the standing water in the pasture.

Get ready for many more winters like this and worse. In fact get ready for winters with no snow at all, and summers so hot nothing you have will survive the season, not the common plants or animals and perhaps not even humans. Just a question of time as so many of the positive feedback loops have kicked in and not one single negative feedback loop is working to counter them. I’m actually starting to wonder if this winter wasn’t the first in the series that is the initial cascade of the tipping point. We’ll see, no doubt.

Warm Regards and thanks for all your wonderful writing.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s