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Tips for Successful Extended Grazing to Reduce Winter Feeding Costs

This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers, in collaboration with Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director.

Extended grazing systems have a number of benefits.  By extending grazing into the winter months, costs related to traditional winter feeding and the labour it requires can be significantly reduced. For example, research indicates that swath grazing can reduce total daily feeding cost per cow by 41 to 48%. This is based on a 78% reduction in yardage costs and a 25% reduction in feed costs.  Extended grazing can also have environmental benefits, such as residue and manure management.

However, extended grazing in our Canadian winters requires some added planning and management.  Replacement heifers, young cows and mature animals all have different nutritional requirements due to their age and physiology.  These differences are fairly easy to manage in a confined feeding system; however, managing the different classes of cattle during winter grazing requires more care.

Winter grazing is a viable management option for many beef cattle operations, but it must be managed properly. There are a number of animal care considerations that must be attended to when extending the grazing season, whether your method of choice is swath grazing, bale grazing, or using stockpiled forages.

Body condition

Cattle need to enter the winter in good body condition (aim for a body condition score of 2.5-3).  Winter temperatures mean that more feed is necessary to keep cows in good condition, and it is very difficult to improve the condition of thin cows during this energy expensive period.  When access to feed is controlled, dominant cows get the most and the best feed.  This can be avoided by segregating cattle into groups (e.g. mature cows, old cows, young cows and heifers). Check body condition regularly, and ensure that cattle losing too much condition are removed and fed separately.  For more information on body condition scores and management, please visit: Alberta Ministry of Agriculture.


Although water requirements decrease in winter, a 1450 lb cow (the average cow size in AB) still needs 10 to 15 gallons/day, depending on stage of gestation.  Cows can and will eat enough snow to meet these requirements if it is loose and clean. Water from another source must be provided if the snow cover is lacking, dirty, or crusted over.  Frost-free stock waterers are recommended.  Although they are more expensive than dugouts or streams, they minimize the risk of drowning and are more reliable than snow, especially in areas prone to repeated freeze-thaw cycles.

Feed testing

Feed testing will help to ensure that your winter forage will meet the nutritional needs of the cattle, but it is important to monitor wastage.  If feed waste is high, animals are likely selecting a higher quality feed than the test indicated.  If there is little waste, the feed test quality is likely accurate, but feed intake may be lower than predicted. It is important to regularly monitor intake and body condition to ensure that all nutritional requirements are being met. For more information on feed testing and the nutritional requirements of bred heifers and cows in each trimester, please visit: Have you Had your Feed Tested (BCRC Blog post).


Cattle in good body condition, with a good winter hair coat and a high quality diet can withstand temperatures of -10oC (calves) to -25oC (cows) without ill effects. However, a 35km/h breeze can make -25oC feel like -40oC. If sufficient bedding and natural shelterbelts or a portable windbreak is not accessible, cattle will lose body condition and may suffer frostbite or hypothermia, if these conditions are prolonged. Information on portable windbreaks is available on the internet or from provincial extension services.

Control grazing

Electric fences reduce feed wastage by controlling access to the swaths or bales. If left to their own devices, cattle will always eat the highest quality feed first, which means that during colder weather and mid to late gestation, they will be left to eat the poor quality leftovers during the times when they need good nutrition the most.  These cows will require supplementation, or else they will suffer from poor pregnancy rates in the following year due to poor body condition.  Cross fencing is highly recommended to avoid this issue – when the poorest feed has been cleaned up, it’s time to move the fence.

Check cattle regularly

Cattle need to be checked frequently. If you are working off-farm and are unable to see your cattle every day in the daylight, arrange with a neighbour or family member to do this for you. Ensure that the fencer is working, and that there is enough feed and water or snow. Body condition and animal behaviour will indicate if they’re getting enough nutrition and shelter from the weather. Any problems will be easier and less costly to fix if they are caught early.

Cutting corners to save costs can quickly lead to negative consequences for the animals, and cancel the financial benefits of extended grazing. If you observe livestock with serious well-being concerns, or if you need animal welfare advice, contact your provincial farm animal care organization or provincial cattle producer association. Confidential help lines are available in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

Contingency plan

A ‘Plan B’ and even ‘Plan C’ is especially important when winter grazing. What will you do if the swath crusts over, or the snow melts and the field turns to mud? Ensure that you are prepared to handle anything Mother Nature throws at your cattle.  It is also important to have access to a low quality feed and supplements so animals will have an easily accessible alternative if the higher quality feed runs out sooner than expected.

Learn more

For more information and practical advice on how to get started or to improve your winter grazing program, as well as the economic and other benefits of extended grazing, please visit:

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