1996 - Volume #20, Issue #2, Page #27[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
He Teaches Cattle To Eat Snow
That's the advice of range management consultant Wayne Burleson who has convinced a number of farmers to try his unusual "low maintenance" method of over-wintering cattle on pasture with no need to supply daily food or water.
"Too many farmers pamper their cattle in winter, confining them in small area, and providing water, hay, protein supplements, and so on. They let the manure build up and then they have to spread it in the spring. It's a lot of work and it's ex-pensive. We've come up with an easy way to keep cattle out on pasture all winter so they do most of the work themselves," says Burleson who works with farmers in the western U.S. and Canada.
For the past five years, Burleson has been pushing the idea of "Swath Grazing" - leaving strips of windrowed small grains or standing hay in fields and letting cattle forage for their food. What makes the idea practical is something that seems like a crazy idea: He "teaches" cattle to eat snow so there's no need for water supply.
"They get along just fine. Licking snow is a learned behavior. After animals learn that snow is a source of water, they'll readily switch back and forth between snow and water with no problem," says Burleson.
Most farmers who hear the idea for the first time ask: "Doesn't eating snow rob a lot of body energy from cattle?" Burleson cites research by a Canadian animal scientist that found no additional metabolic energy requirement for snow-dependant cattle. "It's like slowly licking an ice cube. Be-cause they eat small bits of snow at a time, it actually has much less cooling effect than when they drink large amounts of water from a cool stream. Cattle modify their eating habits when they're dependant on snow. They eat slower and take bits of snow between bites of forage."
Burleson says the wintering of livestock is one of the biggest operating costs a north-ern cattleman faces because of extra labor, bedding, minerals and equipment. "Eliminating many of these costs can be the difference between profit and loss."
For farmers who want to try "swath grazing", Burleson recommends planting several different small grains - wheat, barley, oats - in the same fields, swathing them into windrows before the grain ripens, and dividing the fields with semi-permanent electric fence. During winter, he suggests further subdividing fields with ribbon-type electric fence to direct cattle to areas with plenty of feed.
"I timed one farmer and it took only 30 min. to provide enough winter feed for 250 replacement heifers for the next five days. It's important to monitor the forage so cattle clean it all up before you move them to the next area," he says.
Farmers who try the idea have to have a plan for emergency situations, such as a blizzard with extra deep snow.
Burleson offers on-site consulting and also conducts seminars on range management and other farm and ranch planning topics. He and his wife also wrote a book called "Rut Buster" on goal setting and personal development.
For more information, contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Wayne Burleson, Range management Services, Rt. 1, Box 2780, Absarokee, Mont. 59001 (ph 406 328-6808).
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