Last month, On Pasture reported that more farmers are opting for winter grazing. For those of us living with midwest winters, one might wonder, what exactly does that entail? If you are picturing a bunch of cows in a snowy field, you aren't that far off!
Troy Bishopp has 32 years of grass farming experience under his belt and has a reputation for being "The Grass Whisperer." Troy came to Iowa last week as a key speaker for the Southern Iowa Grazing Conference in Bloomfield to talk about grazing.
On his 100 acres in New York, he has personally watched as 60 grazing dairy heifers rummaged through almost 5 inches of snow to munch on the untouched grasses beneath. While this might seem a bit outlandish when compared with the grain and hay munching cows we imagine on Ol' McDonald's farm, it actually makes a lot of sense if you think about the undomesticated grazing mammals such as bison, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountain West.
A Brief History of Winter Grazing:
Winter grazing really became a thing when it was being researched in the 1950s and 1960s. Hay making had become too labor intensive and costly for a diminishing rural labor force. The cool season perennial grass tall fescue was very popular for stockpiling and weathered well in the winter, so it made sense to invest in that.
Cheap fuel and technological innovations in the late 1960s and 1970s mad haymaking affordable again, so grazing-based agriculture fell out of popularity. Until now...
Benefits of Winter Grazing:
The benefits of winter grazing are numerous, not least of which is cost efficiency. Hay is simply expensive. The winter months are the most expensive for raising cattle.
For those thinking about carbon footprints, winter grazing is quite literally the greener option. Farmer Gabe Brown of North Dakota noted that he used about 1/6th the gallons of diesel fuel for his equipment after he switched to grazing.
Brown also noticed the health of his animals improved, saying, "these animals didn't evolve in confinement; the evolved out grazing and doing what instinctually comes to them. They'd prefer to do that."