Practical tips on re-establishing winter feeding areas

2009-04-24T00:00:00Z 2011-01-11T20:32:32Z Practical tips on re-establishing winter feeding areasBy Jolene Kelzer Minnesota Farm Guide
April 24, 2009 12:00 am  • 

University of Minnesota Beef Team

The common spring-time saying, "April showers bring May flowers," may be relevant, but undoubtedly, flowers are not the only plants that grow once spring arrives.

As the snow melts and the frost layer disappears, once-solid, beef cow winter feeding areas turn into mud and manure. Since it is generally not practical to designate other areas to feed cattle until pastures are ready, these winter feeding areas are sacrificed.

If these muddy areas are left undisturbed to dry, soon opportunistic weeds will take advantage of the "untouched" fertilizer and flourish. Therefore, producers must be proactive to manage and re-establish winter feeding areas to take advantage of the abundant nutrients deposited there before the weeds do.

That being said, how exactly should these winter feeding areas be managed and re-established? While there may not be a "best" way for every beef operation, the following points definitely deserve some consideration.

Beef producers typically house animals in concentrated areas during the winter months to increase ease of management and reduce workload. The catch-22, however, is greater animal concentration will increase manure buildup and damage to the feeding area but may reduce the size of the winter-feeding area needed.

Therefore, the producer must determine what is easier to manage: a larger area that may not require renovation but is mildly damaged and has some forage loss; or a condensed area that requires intensive management due to necessity of manure removal, heavy tillage, and strategic renovation.

Within these feeding areas, soil types vary and will highly impact drainage and the degree of damage caused by the cattle. Sandy soils tend to drain water easier while denser, clay-based soils tend to hold water and promote formation of mud pits when disturbed.

Soil and forage type will influence the amount of nutrients that remain in the feeding area. These areas are rich in nutrients from accumulation over the winter due to buildup of manure and unconsumed organic matter.

Research in northeast Minnesota shows soil pH (6.1 to 7.5) and nutrient levels (phosphorus = 23 to 45 ppm and potassium = 301 to 2200 ppm) of winter feeding areas are well above required levels (phosphorus = 21 ppm and potassium = 160 ppm) for root growth and development. Therefore, letting these areas remain feral over the grazing season seems to be an inappropriate use of its rich growing potential.

Due to buildup of manure and organic matter, these soils are likely salty and depleted of oxygen. Light harrowing or disking may be necessary to smooth the area, break up manure piles, distribute nutrients evenly, and add oxygen to the soil.

When considering forage re-establishment, heavy tillage is preferred to maximize germination success of newly planted seeds. Heavy tillage is highly recommended in areas that are severely damaged or have existing sod. However, heavy tillage should be done only after the area has sufficiently dried out to reduce compaction and further damage to soil structure which may inhibit seedling germination.

Seed-bed preparation should be completed as soon as possible to stay ahead of the weeds and to ensure consistent seed-to-soil contact once seeding is finished.

Typically, winter feeding areas are used from year-to-year. With heavy concentration of cattle traffic and substantial population of weed seedlings present in the ground, these areas become breeding grounds for invasive weeds. Yet, with the fertility available in winter feeding areas, producers must carefully decide how to re-establish these areas to maximize grazing potential.

Now that the winter feeding area is prepped for seeding, the next step is to determine what forage is best to seed in these nutrient-rich areas.

Forages with rapid germination rates and high seedling vigor offer advantages for competing with rapidly sprouting weeds. Again, there is no silver bullet forage, but there are several options depending on the final objective of the area.

Perennial forage production from winter feeding areas the following spring is often poor due to overgrazing during the winter, damage to the roots from hoof traffic during spring thaw, and germination of invasive weeds. Thus, annual forages generally are better suited for seeding conditions of winter feeding areas due to their more rapid ability to germinate and develop competitive growth.

Additionally, annual seeds are typically less expensive than perennial seeds and thus provide a more economical option for seeding, especially if the area is intended to be used again that winter for feeding cattle.

Several annual crops, such as ryegrass, turnips, and sorghum-sudan grass mixtures generally establish well on wintering areas due to their vigorous growth characteristics.

Annual grains, such as oats, barley, and rye may also be viable alternative crops to re-establish winter feeding areas. However, the advantage of annual grasses over annual small grains is that grasses, such as annual ryegrass, tend to out-compete germinating weeds due to their progressive foliage growth closer to the soil, whereas small grains develop a longer stem providing less foliage closer to the soil.

Additionally, annual grasses will re-grow faster following grazing to allow several grazing cycles and tend to grow later in the fall to lengthen the grazing season.

In situations where perennial forages are to be established in winter feeding areas that become permanent summer pastures, vigorous species such as orchardgrass and red clover are commonly seeded in addition to perennial pasture mixes.

Again, a variety that germinates rapidly is necessary to establish itself ahead of the weed seeds that are present in the highly fertile soil. Inter-seeding a vigorous cool-season annual with perennial forages may be beneficial for preventing early growth of weeds that may out-compete the desired, slower-growing perennial species.

Winter feeding areas are commonly under-used pastures that provide rich sources of nutrients effective for growing many types of forages or crops. However, following heavy damage from over-wintering livestock, proper seed-bed preparation and management are necessary to initiate and promote growth of desired forages before invasive weeds become established.

These areas are too valuable to overlook, so when those April showers arrive, make sure to be prepared for more than just flowers in May!

For more information on cow/calf management, visit the U of M Beef Team website at: http://www.extension.umn.


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