Manage Winter Feeding System to Meet
Livestock's Needs

Tom Basden
Nutrient Management Specialist
WVU Extension Service

This article was published in the November 2000 issue of the West Virginia Farm Bureau News.

During November, most livestock producers in West Virginia decide the number and type of livestock they plan to keep during the winter.  The availability of fall pasture, the amount of stored feed, and the quality of the feed will help the farmer determine the number of livestock to retain.  A winter feeding system then needs to be designed to meet the livestock's needs and to protect natural resources. 

This feeding system should accomplish several objectives:

  1. minimize livestock feeding in concentrated areas near water bodies during late fall, winter, and early spring when frequent snow and rain runoff occurs;
  2. improve the use of pastureland;
  3. reduce soil erosion;
  4. maintain water quality; and
  5. improve the health of the livestock.

Reducing the amount of time cattle spend close to surface waters is important because regulatory enforcement occurred this spring in West Virginia. Operations that discharged pollutants (sediment and bacteria) into surface waters were notified by Division of Environmental Protection to improve their winter feeding areas.  Using temporary electric fence is a good method of keeping cattle away from surface streams.  Single- or double-strand high tensile electric fencing is an economical and effective way to protect stream corridors.  It is unlikely to trap debris during flooding.  These fences should be located a minimum of 50 feet from surface streams and sinkhole areas to allow the riparian or sod buffers to capture the sediment, nutrients, and pathogens that escape the feeding areas during runoff.

The sod buffers that are located down slope of a feeding area should have cattle excluded during the fall to allow the grass to grow to a 6-inch height.

This thickened stand of grass will reduce sediment transport during storm runoff.   The critical feeding areas that are left with no vegetation should be reseeded at recommended rates as soon as cattle are removed in the spring.  Seed can be incorporated into the disturbed area by letting livestock walk it in.

A permanent feeding areas needs a system to collect, sore, and then apply the accumulated animal waste.  A properly designed permanent feeding area will have a method (a diversion ditch or earthen berm) to restrict water flowing into the area.   Using sawdust or straw on concrete pads is recommended to absorb liquids and improve footing for the livestock.  A feeding area that is roofed needs a gutter and drainage system to keep water from accumulating with the animal waste.  For permanent feeding areas that store manure, a nutrient management plan needs to be developed and followed to best utilize the nutrients for crop production while protecting water quality.

Rotation of feeding areas every 30 or 40 days during the winter can eliminate the need for designing and building a permanent feeding area.  These temporary feeding areas maintain some vegetation and tend to recover quickly.  These areas can be located on pastureland so nutrients from the manure and urine are recycled directly to the field.   Locate these feeding areas so the livestock have a protected area away from winter winds.  Areas with more than 50% loss of vegetative cover need to be reseeded in the spring.

Extending the grazing season as long as possible is the best way to reduce the time that cattle spend in the feedlot.  Stockpiling tall fescue during the fall and then grazing off this accumulated forage during December and January keeps the cattle on the pasture and out of the feedlot.  Deferred grazing is a good addition to a winter feeding program and can be accomplished with an August application of nitrogen on tall fescue.

Waterborne bacteria can affect herd health when streams and ponds are used for livestock watering.  Herds can pick up bovine leptospirosis and mastitis from this type of water source.  Use streams and ponds only if no alternative watering source is available.  To reduce stream and pond bank erosion, design a single access point for the cattle that is stabilized with stone.

Designing a winter feeding system that ensures the health of the livestock, returns a profit to the farm, and protects the environment is an increasing challenge to the producer.  For help in putting all the parts together to manage your winter livestock feeding area successfully, contact the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, your county Extension agent, or a certified nutrient management planner.  They can evaluate your operation and assist you with modifying or redesigning your winter feeding system to meet your goals.