Reality of winter on dairy farms

26 July 2019

Winter can be a challenging time for farmers. Rainfall and cold weather events inevitably make things wet underfoot and managing those conditions is particularly challenging for farms whose paddocks are home to animals.

Caring for dairy cows and managing mud in winter is a top priority for all farmers grazing cows during winter. Industry good body DairyNZ spoke with two Canterbury dairy farmers about how they look after their cows and the environment.

As Ashburton dairy farmer Mark Slee pulls his truck up alongside one of his paddocks, his cows wander over to see what he’s up to.

While they’re full and content, with bright eyes and glossy coats, they’re curious to see if he’s got something for them.

There’s still plenty of grass in the paddocks, but that will soon drop-off when the days get shorter and the weather gets cooler.

But Mark and his wife Devon, like most dairy farmers, are prepared. They’ve spent the last year growing extra feed and planning how best to manage their paddocks.

In the South Island, the majority of dairy farmers use crops, such as fodder beet, kale and swedes, to keep their cows in tip-top condition when there isn’t enough grass.

But feeding crops isn’t without its challenges. Once the crops are eaten, the soil is left bare and at risk of turning into mud in wet conditions if not managed carefully.

Mark says farmers use a range of practices to keep mud to a minimum to ensure their cows can move freely, have a dry surface to lie down, and reduce the impact on the environment.

Practices include using back fencing, portable troughs and providing additional feed such as hay or baleage.

“We love our cows, they’re our biggest asset, so looking after them is a top priority for us, no matter what season,” he says.

Regular monitoring
Mark, who feeds swedes, kale and fodder beet over winter, regularly monitors his cows to ensure they have enough feed, are content and check the condition of his paddocks.

When we visit, he’s in the process of transitioning some of his rising two-year-old bulls onto swedes and stops to check on them in the afternoon.

He picks up a swede, cracks it open a fencepost and takes a few bites – it’s testament to the quality feed his cows receive.

Because crops are highly nutritious, he says farmers allocate a limited amount each day and supplement with hay or baleage to keep their cows full and warm and ensure a balanced diet.

He says on crops, cows can consume their necessary nutrient requirements in three to four hours.

While cows are “pretty resilient” and grow “thick winter coats”, in really bad weather Mark moves them to sheltered paddocks and offers additional straw to increase cow comfort.

“But the best thing is keeping conditions under foot as dry as possible, so they have somewhere to lie down, as well as providing extra feed,” he says.

Feeding on fodder beet
An hour away at Glenn and Sarah Jones’ dairy farm in Hororata, their cows perk up when they realise it’s time to have their daily allocation of fodder beet.

When farm assistant Beccy Cochrane brings them in from their pasture, as soon as they’re through the gate into the fodder beet paddock they break into a jog to take up a spot in front of the break fence. Once they’re lined up, all you can hear is the sound of contented munching.

“It’s like sugar to them, they love it,” says Glenn.

Within the space of half an hour they’ve devoured the lot.

At this time, they’re only being fed a small amount as they’re transitioning onto crop and getting used to the rich feed. This process takes a few weeks.

But planning for winter started 12 months ago.

The crop, sown in November, will provide 25 tonnes of dry matter per hectare to feed their cows over the winter months. They have also secured additional grazing at a nearby property to have extra feed for their cows.

Minimising mud
Glenn says minimising mud is a big focus for his team for animal welfare and environmental reasons.

“Winter is a real challenge, particularly with fodder beet when you’re feeding a smaller area because of the high yield per hectare. When conditions do get wet, we move the break fence more frequently, three to four times a day, so the cows can eat under the wire to fully utilise the feed, and we use back fences and portable troughs so they’re not walking back and forth across the paddock.”

In severe rain or snow, Glenn says they move their cows off crops and onto a grass paddock to minimise damage to soil and provide more shelter.

“Cows walking through mud all day takes a lot of energy out of them, it’s not good for them, it’s not something we like to see, so we try to minimise that as much as possible.”

Keen to find out more? Click here to watch a video of Mark and Glenn explaining more about what they do on farm during winter.  

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About wintering on dairy farms

What is wintering?

Grazing animals on winter crops is a practice many farmers adopt to help keep their herds in good condition while pasture growth is low.

Who does it?

Cows and other animals, including sheep and deer, are often wintered on crops – particularly in the South Island and in some areas of the North Island.

What crops are fed?
Common crops fed as part of a wintering plan include kale, fodder beet and swedes. The crops are supported by supplements such as baleage, silage and hay. Cows are gradually introduced to a crop and are fed on it during the key winter months.

Why does good management matter?

There are three components to successful wintering – selecting the right paddocks, establishing crops and grazing management. Grazing cows on the crop involves gradually break feeding the crop, using portable water troughs to prevent cows going back into already grazed areas and managing grazing so nutrient runoff into the environment is prevented.

Mark Slee, Ashburton dairy farmer

Glenn Jones, Hororata dairy farmer

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