Winter Forage?

I’m going to apologize right now. Sorry for writing a post that only three or four of you dear readers will truly enjoy. But since my face lights up when the conversation shifts to grazing and winter feed budgeting, I’m going for it.

The ne plus ultra of being a grazier (one who manages grazing animals) is to take a herd through an entire calendar year on pasture alone, with the animals doing 100% of the work of harvesting. Accomplishing this feat is easier said than done, particularly in my climate. Everyone I know feeds hay through the winter, some less than others, but everyone does it. The metric we graziers use is “days on hay” because it approximates “money out of pocket”. Winter feed is the single largest expense when it comes to keeping cows. Every day not feeding hay means more money in my pocket.

In many parts of the mid-west and plains there are producers who routinely carry their herds through with only a few days of hay feeding, or none at all. In the upper mid-west (like the Dakotas, and Canadian prairie provinces) there is an intermediate practice called “swath grazing” where a field is mowed into windrows, and these swaths are then left in the field. With portable electric fence the swaths can be doled out for the cattle to eat in the field. Even in a deep snow year the cows will learn to dig to the swath for dinner and the thick layer of grass makes their effort pay off. If the grass is spread evenly over the whole field the return on investment for digging effort is much lower for the hungry animal. The benefits to the farmer accrue in his or her pocketbook because swathing a field is much less expensive than taking it several steps further into finished bales.

FireShot Capture 16 - Hay_windrows_and_bales,_tractor_with_r_ - https___upload.wikimedia.org_wikip

Wikimedia photo. Windrows and large bales evident. Swath grazing would call for leaving the windrows where they are, not baling them.

Nobody I know swath grazes because it is so much wetter here (avg precip is 45 inches vs +/- 20 for much of North Dakota). The swaths would need to be cut in October and the risk is high that of most of the feed value in the cut grass would leach out before solid freezes stop the degradation process.

Some grasses maintain reasonably good feed value as long as they’re still attached to their roots and the snow doesn’t make them inaccessible to grazers. But I get a lot of snow, and it is routine for the conditions here to make grazing a losing proposition for a cow. One of the gurus of year-round grazing, Jim Gerrish, literally wrote the book on it. He cut his chops in Missouri, and has since emigrated to Idaho. In his book he says the Great Lakes states and the Northeast are the two most difficult parts of North America to graze year-round. The freeze-thaw cycles and regular deep snows play havoc with forage quality and livestocks’ ability to get at it in those two bioregions. I suppose the Pacific Northwest climate presents major diffculties to the would be year-round grazier too. The constant wet for 2/3 of the year without much, if any, solid freezing makes for soft ground. Heavy hoofed animals will damage swards of grass if they spend much time on soggy spots. If the whole farm is sodden for more than half the year, that is a real challenge. The ‘normal’ solution is to make hay and haul it to the animals for the part of the year when pasture is unavailable, no matter the reason.

I don’t have an answer for constant mud, but a possible, and I want to emphasize possible, solution to the snow problem is a forage that will stand up tall and retain some feed value. Several years ago while brainstorming on the topic of winter grazing Garth thought of bamboo. It’s a grass. It’s routinely fed to animals all over the place in Asia. Panda bears, which by all accounts are horrible at digesting roughage, survive on it through snow filled winters. Genius that Garth is, he was not the first American to consider bamboo as a possible crop. There are not a lot of academic papers on it circulating the web, but there are a few. Most of the interesting papers I dug up were pretty dated – like from the 1950s – which in some respects encouraged me further because the move to Management intensive Grazing by beef producers really only got legs in the 1980s. It seems likely that nobody has gotten around to trying bamboo as a stockpiled forage because of the challenges I’ll now enummerate –

1. Establishment costs for bamboo groves are very high. Purchasing enough rhizomes to plant an acre of ground could easily cost thousands of dollars (Seed for pasture/hay mixes is an order of magnitude less).

2. Insufficient research on the feed value of standing bamboo is available to make informed decisions.

3. Non-existant information about how best to manage livestock to harvest bamboo.

4. Unknown whether a stand of bamboo will tolerate yearly defoliation and still remain the dominant plant in a given area (this is probably location and climate dependent).

5. Unknown how much hoof traffic a bamboo grove will tolerate before culms are damaged and the stand suffers (this is probably type of bamboo, time of year, size of animal, and type of soil dependent).

6. Unknown possible yield of forage/acre (this is location and bamboo species dependent).

7. Unknown fertility requirements (type, amount, and timing of fertilizer application to optimize quality and yield).

That many ‘unknowns’ means there is a lot of room for experimentation and also a lot of room for ‘failure’ of concept. Any one of the unknowns I listed could derail the project, at least under my climate and soil conditions. Failure here would not necessarily mean bamboo is worthless everywhere. It might be a great forage to stockpile in Missouri or Arkansas as a drought buffer since their milder winters allow more than one year’s worth of leaves to accumulate. Standing forage yield per acre could potentially be quite high…

But I live in New York and dream of grazing my cattle during February, even if I can’t actually make it all the way to May 1st when the regular pasture species are tall enough to graze. I purchased four types of cold hardy bamboo, but only one has truly thrived – Phyllostachus bissetii. I also dug three unidentified types in Pennsylvania and two of them have done pretty well. I have not pampered my plantings because I wanted to see how well they’d tolerate competing with the grasses and forbs that dominate my land “naturally”. Now that I’m satisfied the bamboo is capable of holding its own against other plants I’ve decided to give it a helping hand with some mulch and fertilizer. The mulch is apparent in the leading photo. This will accelerate the growth of my bamboo grove and allow me to test the bullet points I listed above. I also plan to propagate the thriving types more widely. Otherwise it spreads only by runners and makes it about 6 ft per year.


Photo Credit – Normandy Alden

Edmund BrownWinter Forage?

Comments 19

  1. Anna

    I actually found this totally fascinating and look forward to hearing updates. One thing I’m not clear on: do you know for sure that your cows will eat it? Presumably it’s got a good nutritional profile.

    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      I forgot to mention that didn’t I? Yes, I’ve tested whether my cattle will eat it by cutting some stalks and carrying them over. The cattle pull every last leaf off and leave behind the twigs and stalks.

      1. Post
        Edmund Brown

        As for the quality of the forage, tested in January it had about the same digestibility as first cut hay and better protein. It could definitely meet the maintenance needs of a dry cow. It would be a little short on quality to keep a young steer growing fast, but they wouldn’t starve on it.

  2. Pam R

    I am fascinated with this and look forward to seeing what you learn. Here we are on our last bit of grazing, perhaps 10 days more. That’s actually better than previous years and we had 9 yearling heifers instead of 6-7. Each year has been an improvement over the past. But I am in Western Mass and with only 6 animals, can make it into December before hay must be fed. Can’t graze again before mid May. So this is definitely fascinating to me.

    1. Post
  3. Rich

    I don’t know how far north it will grow, but it sounds like trying something like the native cane that grows in the southeast and along the east coast might be close to what you’re talking about. I’ve read that canebrakes used to cover large areas in the south and were traditionally used for winter shelter and grazing until overgrazing and clearing reduced them.

    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      I have a chunk of Arundinaria gigantea (river cane) growing right next to the Phyllostachus in the lead photo. It puts on less mass, browns ealier in the winter and is less able to out-grow the surrounding pasture plants. I don’t think it is cold hardy enough to do what I need it to do in this climate. I bet it would be great to try it in Missouri, North Carolina, etc.

  4. Judy Kennedy

    Although I’m not a farmer, I have always been interested in farming and it’s methods. Perhaps it’s because its methods can be either harmonious, or not, with the surrounding environment.

    A few years ago, an environmental farming showcase was held at the Fleming Environmental College Campus in Lindsay, Ontario, which is about 15 minutes from where I live. There were a series of speakers, offering interesting and informative talks on environmentally sustainable farming techniques, including grass feed beef and winter grazing, using tall grass prairie grasses and Forbes. Unfortunately, the name of the speaker and his website have escaped my memory, but I did find a website that may get you started in the right direction.

    However, what is etched into my aging memory from that presentation is a photo of a cow munching on head high Big Blue Stem and Indian grasses.

    Here is a link for NATIVE GRASS & FORB: MANAGEMENT FOR FORAGE & WILDLIFE that you might find helpful.

    Viewing the video about controlled burning of pasture at the bottom of this page will lead you to more videos about year round, strip and winter grazing.

    Native tall grass prairie grasses have roots reach deep down into the subsoil. This is what keeps the plant alive through long periods of dry summer days. They are rich in minerals and trace elements that they bring up from deep in the ground. They also grow quite study and tall, which makes them easy to find above the snow, and they act as heat wicks from the winter sun, which keeps the show around sugary and easy to dig through.

    The bonus to establishing a tall grass environment is that you would be providing natural habitat for endangered bird species, such as Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlark. You may even attract Pheasants, Bobwhites and Turkeys, which would be a nice addition to the dinner table.

    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      That first website you linked to has a lot of good info in it. It looks like a condensed version of Gerrish’s book I linked to above.

      As for warm season perennials – i.e. native bunch grasses – I have a test plot of them going too, though I don’t plan to use them much for winter grazing. My plan for them is to create a perennial finishing pasture to get the steers good and fat in August when my cool season grasses want a little break… This spot will never be a large % of my farm, but it will be something. If I lived somewhere hotter and drier I would devote more to warm season perennials like Indian grass and Big Bluestem and Eastern Gamagrass.

    2. Garth Brown

      We’ve planted three types of tall prairie grass in addition to some indian grass, but we have not tried establishing them on any significant acreage. I think there would be a place for them on the farm, though I’ve recently been thinking it might be smart for us to try to establish sod forming grasses rather than clumping types, since I suspect they would better tolerate the impact of pigs. There are so many things to experiment with!

      I am happy to tell you that, presumably because a lot of the farm is grazed on a slow rotation, we always get bobolinks. This past summer there were far fewer than any previous year – usually they’re all over the place, but I only recall seeing a couple – but I’m hoping they’ll be back in larger numbers next summer. I also saw at least one meadowlark, but they don’t seem to be as numerous the bobolinks on our farm. Or maybe I’m just not as good at spotting them.

  5. Bob Burkinshaw

    I am one of the three or four who found this really interesting. Please keep us posted as you learn more from this.

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    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      I’m glad you like it. I’ve fallen off the wagon recently vis a vis regular posting, but I anticipate getting back into the swing of things is a little while.

  8. Pingback: Winter Grazing (Browsing) | Cairncrest Farm

  9. Ricardo Zachrisson

    Recently started transferring Guadgua Bambu plants from our seed lot to our fields, we planned to use Bambu plants to protect water sources and small creeks that have suffered heavy (tropical rain-forest) deforestation. We run a small silvopasture program in Northern Guatemala area of Peten, and Guadgua Bambu has been in our mind for our project venture during many years.

    We noticed, kind of late, our cattle Brahman do eat the Bambu leafs, yet the plant rapidly sprouts new ones. Believe after learning abt feeding cattle with Bambu, that we will have to protect our Bambu plants to succeed. On the other hand we will a sign a small lot to feed our cattle with bamboo, perhaps it will be very good.

    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      Hi Ricardo,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I expect if you prevent the cattle from eating every shoot that emerges you’ll be able to continuously harvest fodder for your animals from the bamboo patch.

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