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Cover Crops for Winter Grazing

Wintering beef cows was once “pretty traditional” on Jerry Doan’s Black Leg Ranch near McKenzie, North Dakota.

“Like most everybody else, we brought the cows up into the corrals at the headquarters and fed them hay in the winter feeding area,” he says. “I spent the summer putting up hay; I fed it out in the winter and then had to haul away the manure.”

All that has changed. Doan’s cows now graze through most of the winter, all the way until February and March. He feeds just a quarter of the amount of hay he once did, and the cost savings in fuel and hay tally around $150 per cow. All told, he figures he saves $50,000 annually – and more when conditions permit grazing all winter.

Low-cost system

Cover crops are the key to the low-cost system of outwintering. “In our area, cover crops are better for winter grazing than grass,” he says. “Deep snow can cover up the grass, while the cover crops will usually stand above the snow. The cover crops also tend to have better nutrition for the cattle.”

He no-till plants the cover crops in the middle of June, allocating 1 acre per cow for grazing in winter. The cover crops grow on farmable fields situated on rolling and sandy land. Building soil health in these fields is one of Doan’s goals.

By grazing half of the cover crop stand and leaving the remaining half in the field, much of the crop becomes residue for the soil. The residue contribution is significant because of the large amount of biomass produced by Doan’s cover crops.

“By late October, the cover crop is often taller than I am,” he says. “Fields that we’ve put up for hay have yielded 5 to 6 tons per acre.”

Crop diversity

The diverse species – as many as a dozen – included in the cover crop planting contribute to nutritional quality of the grazing forage in winter. The mix includes such species as millet, radishes, turnips, and field peas.

“We’re experimenting by adding species to the cover crop mix that should help further improve the nutrition of the forage,” says Doan. “This year, we added a brown midrib forage corn that’s reported to be good for winter grazing. We also added kale and collards; those plants get big and leafy. After temperatures of -20°F., they were still grass-green in midwinter.”

At the end of March 2014, the cover crop still had a “green tinge,” he says. “The cows were just loving it.”

The crop diversity creates diverse biological activity below ground, thus improving soil health.

He plants the cover crops in fields bordered by permanent fencing. Typically, these locations allow access to Doan’s fields of cornstalks and pastures of stockpiled native range. Thus, cattle have a balance of forages from which to choose.


The fields selected for winter grazing are also bordered by well-established tree belts, and these provide shelter for the cattle from wind.

Cows start grazing the cover crops late in the year, at the end of November and early December, when Doan “runs out of grass.” This occurs late in the season because his system of managed rotational grazing on rangeland pastures lengthens the traditional grazing period for grass.

Snow conditions determine how long cattle can winter-graze cover crops. During the previous two years, the cattle grazed cover crops until February and March. For the winter ending in April 2014, cover crops had met all feed needs for the cowherd. Doan fed no hay the entire winter.

“If the snow stays soft and fluffy, the cows can graze through 2 feet of snow,” he says. “There will be some cover crop material standing above that much snow, and, of course, they graze this, as well. If there are a couple of days of thawing, an ice cap can form on the surface. Then, the cattle won’t be able to graze into the snow. Snow conditions make grazing cover crops a bit of a guessing game. Mother Nature always throws a few curve balls along the way.”

Doan holds hay in reserve for feeding cattle during periods when winter grazing is restricted. During these times, he feeds cattle out on pasture, if possible, matching the amount of hay fed to the degree to which winter grazing is restricted.

“We always try to have a backup plan,” he says.

Water is always an issue when Doan chooses locations for winter grazing. To deliver water to one location, he installed a deep pipeline. Chopping ice from a dam provides water to another site.

“The cattle will walk about a mile to water,” he says. “When the snow is fluffy, they’ll eat snow. They often stay out for three or four days eating snow, and then they’ll walk to the water. We’re finding that they can do a lot for themselves.”

Last winter, Doan winter-grazed the calves alongside the cows. He weaned the calves in March. “Winter-grazing the calves worked pretty well,” he says. “We monitored forage quality and found we were getting short on protein by spring.”

Meeting nutritional needs

Because cows calve in May and June, new-growth grass meets nutritional needs for calving and early lactation. Nutritional monitoring of cover crops and harvested forages suggests that the feeding of some hay in late spring meets the cows’ nutritional requirements for their third trimester of gestation.

However, the need for hay varies by year. In April 2014, after an entire winter of eating nothing but cover crops, excellent cow condition suggested the cover crops were meeting nutritional needs.

Saving money

Along with revenues earned from other ranch enterprises, the overall cost savings resulting from the winter grazing of cover crops helps Doan and his wife, Renae, make financial room in their operation for their three sons – Jeremy, Jay, and Jayce – and their daughter, Shanda Morgan.

“Every day that we can get by without feeding hay is a day we’re able to save money and to be more profitable,” says Doan. “We realize a huge savings from keeping cattle out on the land.”

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