Last week I wrote about our Intensive Rotational Grazing system, and since we sit right in the snowbelt, we definitely spend our year thinking about what happens when the snow flies.
While we do let the cows out in the pasture during the winter, it obviously can't provide enough nutrition to keep them healthy through the cold winters...
So, getting back to the original question:
What do we feed the cows once the snow covers the ground?
First and foremost, I want to point out that our strategy to winter feeding isn’t just to “get them through the winter”. Our primary goal is providing healthy, balanced, and consistent feed so our animals actually THRIVE all winter long. In all honesty, we've never met another beef farmer that feeds beef cows the way we do - and we only do it this way because we had the dairy first!
For us it makes sense, and the more we do it, the more we see the benefits in animal health and the quality of our beef.
That being said, my 30 SECOND ANSWER is:
We feed a mixture of different hays/grasses that we harvested and stored throughout the summer and fall. We try to make it as close to the pasture experience as possible, but we mix it and feed them in the barn. In the very cold winter months, there are times we add silage to our mix to help with increased energy demands - which keeps the cows healthy and strong.
And if that’s all you wanted to know, you should SCROLL ON or CLICK AWAY!
Because now we morph into the NERDY FARMER KAT ANSWER
For frame of reference: most grass-fed beef cattle spend their winter eating large, dry round bales either in the barn or from a feed wagon or bale feeder out in the pasture. This is very normal, very typical for the industry… it’s just not how we do things around here.
PHOTO: A stock photo of a typical beef farm during winter for visual example.
So, here’s what feeding cattle at Keyser Creek Farms looks like during the winter months…..
- Harvest, record, and map our feed
- Lab nutrient analysis
- Nutritionist creates balanced rations
- Feed kitchen and automated feeding system
1. Harvest, record, and map our feed
As we harvest hay throughout the summer/fall, we record exactly how many bales came in from each field during each cut.
This is a basic example of our data (we have more fields, and sometimes get a 5th cut); plus, Ron loves spreadsheets – so his are way more complicated and detailed than this:
Ron also draws a quick map of the bale storage area, and adds to it as he goes throughout the year. Out in the yard, he marks the different groups with Red Tuct Tape.
Caleb helping Ron mark bales.
DID YOU KNOW?
Each hay cut will yield a different nutritional quality that can depend on various factors, such as:
- How many years the crop has been established
- Heat and moisture
- Soil health
- Timing of the harvest
2. Lab nutrient analysis
How do we know if we made good feed? Simple. We test it.
Couldn't take the sample and the photo at the same time.... haha!
Ron uses a drill extension that’s designed for taking core samples from bales. Each sample is individually packaged, labelled, and sent to a lab in London for analysis.
This lab analysis looks at tons of different nutrient points like energy, protein, non-digestible fibre (NDF), vitamins, micronutrients, as well as mold and toxins.
3. Nutritionist creates balanced rations
Our lab results are then sent to our animal nutritionist – Tom Palen, owner of Triple P Consulting. (*He didn’t even pay me to put that plug in for him! 😊 ) Honestly, we love Tom – he’s been with our farm for… +15 years?!?... and is one of our most trusted allies. He stops by our barns, checks on the cows, and really cares that they are healthy and eating well.
He takes all the nutritional information from the lab results, and creates different feed rations for different groups of animals (young stock won’t have the same demands as an older, larger animal, right?)
Sometimes we make feed that is “too hot”, which means it’s extremely high in energy - while we definitely need to provide lots of energy, too much can cause obesity or other health problems for cows. In other situations, a particular combination of soil and weather conditions can cause nutrient imbalances like high potassium. But too much of a good thing… right? By sampling our feed, we can know of any problems ahead of time with a lab analysis and prevent issues in our herd.
So, Tom takes all things into consideration and finds options from other feed samples we’ve provided that will keep our cattle at their prime all winter long. For example, you can "cool off" the hot feed by mixing it with the right amount of forage from a different field that has a complimentary nutrient analysis, so the average throughout the ration is right where it should be! These are things we could never tell with the naked eye.
Yes - it costs extra money to do this upfront analysis, but we believe that the investment creates healthier animals and a superior end product.
4. Feed kitchen and automated feeding system
Great – we have the ingredients (feed samples); we have the recipe (thanks Tom!)… now on to the kitchen!
We actually have something called a “Feed Kitchen” in the barn, and, I suppose, even an on-site chef (aka. automated feed system software). 😉
While writing, I realized that this part of our barn needs an entire section (or maybe a video walk through) on its own… so I’m going to keep it focussed on the beef cows, and keep it simple.
When our beef cattle aren't out on pasture, we feed them a mixture of 2-3 different hays/grasses, and, at times, they might get some silage. Each kind of hay is placed on a different bale unit in the Feed Kitchen – this unit slowly moves the bale along a conveyor toward rotary blades that chop and drop the proper amount onto a lower conveyor and into a large mixer. A built-in scale helps ensure the weight is extremely precise.
These bales units are stocked with bales of different cuts of forage. They chop and drop the feed onto the silver conveyor in the left photo, which drops it onto the angled conveyor in the right photo, and up into the green mixer.
After the ration is mixed, a series of more conveyors, deflectors, and plows will move the feed to the final overhead conveyor that will drop the mix into a feed alley right in front of our beef cows. (Needs a video, right?!)
The next conveyors transport and dump the mix into the feed alley in front of the proper group.
Ron used to do all the mixing and feeding with equipment - it was one of the most time-consuming chores for him every day. What we have now is an intricate system with a lot of moving parts (there are pros and cons to that 😉), but it has freed up a lot of his time and even allows him to feed animals when we’re not home!
So, what does their ration ACTUALLY look like?
As calves they’re obviously on milk, and as they grow we gradually increase amounts of the dry hay as they are weaned. Our older steers, (when they're fed in the barn, rather than out grazing) eat about 18kgs of mixed feed a day.
Most of the time this mixture is 100% grasses and forages; however, there are times during the cold of winter (January/February-ish) when we might add up to 4kgs of corn silage to that mix.
I'm going to highlight SILAGE for a minute here because most people hear the word 'corn', and they don't differentiate between the two.... they hear the word 'corn', and they automatically think "grain-fed". Please keep reading! I'll explain the dramatic difference between corn and corn silage, and also WHY we sometimes feed small amounts during the coldest times of the year.
VERY IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES!
Grain corn and corn silage are two drastically different feed sources - yes, it's the same crop (in a sense), but the way the varieties are cross-pollinated to emphasize different characteristics, grown, harvested, and stored create very different nutrient profiles.
* grown primarily for the stalks and leaves
* grown for the grain
* cross-bred for larger, more digestible
* cross-bred for larger cobs and kernels
* harvest stalks, leaves, cob, kernels
* harvest kernels ONLY
* use a harvester to cut and chop the entire plant into one mixture
* use a combine to separate the kernels from the rest of the plant (which is dispersed back into the field)
* stored wet in silos, bunkers or bags (ferment)
* stored dry in grain bins with air circulation
* harvested in September/October when plants are still fairly green
* harvested late October/November/December when plants are fully dried and brown
|* 2.5% grain corn
|* 100% grain corn
YES - you're reading that right! When you harvest the entire corn plant, the kernels only account for ~2.5% of the feed volume.
I highly recommend CHECKING OUT THIS VIDEO BY AgPHD FOR A GREAT EXPLANATION with helpful visuals: Corn Harvest - Silage vs. Grain - YouTube
Still with me?! Great.
DID YOU KNOW?
Corn silage is made of mostly stalks and leaves - 1kg of corn silage only contains about 25g of actual grain - the greens themselves provide a similar nutrient profile to other grasses, plants, and forages that cows may find in a pasture. On the other hand, kernels of corn are very high energy - which is why some farmers switch to grain-finishing. The extra energy causes the animals to pack on extra weight very quickly - it's why grain-fed beef often has more marbling, and a slightly different flavour.
During the very cold winter, when the extreme temperatures put high demands on the animals' metabolic systems, a small amount of grain helps the cows maintain a healthy energy balance.
The 4kgs of corn silage in a daily ration works out to to about 100g of actual grain. So, 100g of grain in 18kgs of feed is only 0.56% of their diet... about half a percent!
*(25g/1,000g)*100 = 2.5%
4,000g*0.025 = 100g
(100g/18,000g)*100 = 0.56%
The beef cattle that are put on "grain-finished diets" switch out 60-85% of the grasses and forages in their feed for straight corn kernels... that's dramatically different that 0.56% (which is only IF we harvested enough corn silage to feed them, and IF it's cold enough to need the energy boost, and IF our nutritionist adds it to their ration). In all honesty, corn silage is significantly more expensive for us as organic farmers, so if it's not NEEDED to keep our animals healthy then we won't feed it.
Most people think that because cattle are grazers, that they are designed for outdoors all year long...well, yes... and no.
- In the wild, grazers would naturally pack on extra weight and fat to help them through the long, cold months - on a farm they aren't necessarily able to do that to the appropriate extent
- Herds migrated! They might not move to Florida for the winter, but even grazers built for cool weather will relocate to some degree when the nasty weather comes
- In deep cold, cattle would move to sheltered areas where they could reduce rain and wind exposure - most pastures don't have that as an option
- Even with their winter coat, once the temp drops below -8*C (without wind chill factored in), cold stress kicks in and begins placing extra demands on their body and can cause negative health effects
Yes - cows can handle a lot of outdoor weather - but they're not immune to the polar temperatures and ice storms! The effects of stress in cattle have been proven to directly affect the quality of meat - so the extra energy from the small amount of grain ensures they are not just "getting through" winter, but they are strong and healthy all year long, and always producing top-quality beef.
So.... as you can see, we're pretty passionate about making great feed for our animals. We don’t claim “100% grass-fed" on any of our pages. We're only 99.44% grass-fed and finished, but we're 100% organic and 100% confident that our animals are "Best Fed"!