Options for Managing Mud in Pastures This Winter

Chris Penrose, Associate Professor and Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, OSU Extension, Morgan County (This is an updated article from one first published in the January, 2017 Progressive Forage magazine)

Most forage livestock producers do not mind the cold temperatures in the winter, nor do most mind some snow. One thing we do mind is the mild, wet weather we have had this winter. I think we all know the stress for us when we are trying to feed in the mud, especially if we get stuck. Whether it is our tractor or our boots, it never is a good experience. What happens when our fields are grazed to the ground and our sod can no longer support the livestock, feeders and equipment? The fields decline rapidly, round bale feeders become “mud magnets” and tire tracks rut fields.

Mud also increases stress for our livestock. For example, Smith (1971) indicates that cattle may require 30% more net energy for maintenance. Even shallow depths of mud (4-8”) can reduce feed intake 5-15% (University of Nebraska, 1991) and when mud is 12-24” deep, feed intake can be reduced by 15-30%. Are you losing enough to justify a feed pad?  Are there some other things we can do to reduce the problems of mud in the winter?

Cattle on Stockpiled grass in January

One of the best things we can do is not to have to feed hay or at least minimize the length of time we feed hay. In addition to not having to take the time and effort to feed, it generally costs three times more to take the feed out to livestock than to let them harvest it themselves. How do we do this? Corn stalks and other crop residue, stockpiled fescue or other grasses, brassicas, small grains are all options to extend the grazing season. Over the past twenty five years, I know of many livestock producers that made it into March in the Midwest before they had to feed hay and a few that made it through the winter without feeding hay.

If we get a stretch of weather when we can get out in the fields, a great option is to set out round bales, place them at least 20’ apart, then fence it off with electric, and move the fence as more hay is needed. This works especially well on stockpiled fields so cattle can graze the fields and feed on hay as needed while minimizing “pugging” or trampling of the soil. Another variation I have seen one of our local beef producers do is to only make the bales around 600# and the cows will eat most of the hay and there will not be enough left over to require re-working or re-seeding the site in the spring. One of our farmers in Southeast Ohio still makes the small round bales with his Allis Chalmers baler and stockpiles the field, which works very well. He is a better mechanic and has more patience than me!

Field after cows finished feeding stockpiled fescue and 600# round bales of hay

When you do feed large round bales there are a few steps to reduce waste. First, feed hay in well drained areas. Next, we should feed hay in small amounts or in a feeder. Finally, feed hay stored outside before hay stored inside.  If you put out a one week supply of large round bales without racks, you will waste up to 43% of the hay (MU fact Sheet G4570). When you consider the amount of hay that is lost and the reduction of feed intake from the mud, maybe a heavy use feed pad is an option. One of the best setups I have seen is a beef producer with a heavy use pad with a concrete base, a roof over the hay, next to a road. It is very close to a barn where he can grab a bale of hay and set it right into the feeder, greatly minimizing waste and not getting into the mud.

Heavy use pad with roof over the hay and barn nearby for hay storage

If you have enough fields and can utilize feed cattle can graze, I would argue that is a better option. One thing I do is to divide the herd in the winter into the spring and fall calving groups to spread them out more. I try to graze the bottom ground first then move them on the hilltops later in the winter. In my situation, I am still feeding square bales and using a utility vehicle with large low pressure tires, reducing or eliminating ruts when I need to feed hay. I also place the hay where the ground is the firmest and in areas that need additional fertility. I also save some stockpiled, well drained hilltop ground for the spring calving cows to freshen on in March which will provide a clean dense sod and plenty of feed for the rest of the winter. This should also reduce the chances of young calves getting sick. However, this has been the wettest early in the winter for the longest period of time I can remember and I may have to bring one group of cows back down the hill to feed as it is becoming almost impossible to get up the hill.

Even if you do not have enough pasture to stockpile grass for wither feeding, I challenge you to think outside the box. Hay fields (predominately grass) can be early grazed and/or stockpiled for winter grazing. I know of several farmers that take first cutting hay off neighbor’s fields, and then graze those fields instead of taking off second cutting while stockpiling fields on his own farm for winter grazing.

If we do see we are tearing up some ground, make plans to restore the fields. If the ground is not in too bad of shape, a late winter frost seeding will help. If it needs more help, maybe dragging or light disking followed by a seeding will work. If we do nothing at all, we can expect to lose production for the year. Even if we have the best of plans, many years Mother Nature will win, but hopefully we can try a few things to reduce amount of stored feed we need and reduce the amount of mud during the winter.