Pasture and Forage Minute: Grazing with Snow Cover, Forage Inventory
Snow Cover in Pastures and Grazing Considerations
Nebraska’s last winter storm blanketed much of the state in significant snowfall, leaving behind 15 inches in the west-central region to nearly two feet in central Nebraska. While this is great news for our drought conditions, it’s important to remember that, on average, it takes 10 inches of snow to get one inch of water. Additionally, snow cover has other benefits beyond adding moisture as well as considerations when winter grazing.
Snow cover in crop fields, particularly in early winter, acts as an insulator for the soil, trapping heat and restricting the depth of the frost layer. This insulation effect also allows the soil to thaw quicker in the spring. In addition to replenishing soil moisture, snow cover helps to preserve existing moisture while also protecting against wind and water erosion. While we can’t control the timing and amount of snow we receive, producers can encourage snow cover by maintaining standing residue in fields over the winter.
For winter grazing, it’s important to remember that while cattle can graze through snow and ice, the height and structure of forage as well as the type of precipitation will determine ease of grazing. Heavy, wet snow or snow that has formed a surface crust will cause animals to work harder to eat. In these situations, it’s recommended that producers keep an eye on animal condition and be prepared to supplement when necessary.
Inventoring Remaining Forage Supply
Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) pegs the mid-point of winter, so now may be a good time to inventory your remaining hay and forage. Remember you can’t effectively manage what you do not measure.
Do you have enough hay and forage to last the remainder of winter? Your final answer may depend on weather factors beyond your control, such as heavy snow cover impacting pasture grazing. Will your pastures still need extra early season rest due to previous drought?
When making your feed management decisions, consider using "best case" and "worst case" scenarios.
Focus on completing a thorough inventory, account for all feed resources — even counting all bales available. Calculate remaining bunker silage. Also estimate remaining forage grazing and assign economic values.
Compare what feed resources you have versus what your herd may need. For example, a 200-head lactating cow herd average cow size of 1,200 pounds will need about 3.2 tons of hay per day (not accounting for waste).
Focus on making the best use of your feed resources. Would it be financially beneficial to sell extra highest quality forage and feed the rest? If mild winter conditions continue, selling your higher value forage could generate more cashflow toward paying taxes and land payments. On the flip side, if your feed reserves are too low, will you need to cull your cow herd more and/or buy more forage?
If your cows are thin, consider the opposite — sell your lower quality forage and feed your higher quality.
Thin condition score cows need more protein and energy to keep from dropping body condition and maintaining their milk production.
If you need assistance managing your remaining feed resources and evaluating your hay and forage needs, Nebraska Extension educational resources are available on CropWatch and UNL Beef.
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