O for Out-Wintering

No two farms are the same, and neither are the systems that work for them. In Britain, there are so many different options when it comes to how to keep your cattle, what to feed them and how to get through the winter months, it all depends on where you farm and what you’re farming.

You’ll have likely noticed by previous posts on here, and the many photos of our cows inside a cosy, straw-bedded shed, that we house our cattle for the winter, but some farmers out-winter theirs.

Out-Wintering – Where cattle spend the winter outside instead of being housed in a shed.

We try and keep our cows outside for as long as possible, but when the bad weather arrives, so does the knee-deep mud, and there comes a point where the cows have to come inside to protect our soils.

Cows are incredibly hardy, their thick skin and coats provide extremely good protection against the elements, and their stomach is like a giant internal radiator because of the heat it produces while digesting their food. They actually prefer cold temperatures to hot ones!

If there’s a dry place to lay and plenty of forage to munch on, most cattle in the UK would happily spend the whole of winter outside. But whether your land would be happy with this is another thing!

Whether you can out-winter depends on a few things, some include…

  • What your land is like…
    • Is it sandy and free-draining, or easily waterlogged with a high clay content?
  • What food you have available…
    • Have you saved fields of long grass that’s high in fibre and gone to seed, called ‘standing hay’?
    • Are you in a milder area of the country where grass grows almost all year round?
    • Are there any forage crops on arable land, like stubble turnips or kale, that you can graze?
    • Is there somewhere dry to feed hay or silage?
  • And what stock you have… Tough, thick-coated beef cows can withstand a lot harsher weather than thinner-skinned dairy cows or young calves.

If your land is dry enough, so you don’t cause poaching (where the grass cover turns to sloppy mud, causing soil compaction and damage to next year’s grass growth, as well as some soil to run off into the watercourses), then out-wintering can be really beneficial for the cattle, and save a lot of money on bedding materials!

There are pros and cons to both systems though, and as long as both ways results in happy, healthy cattle, then that’s all that matters.

Looking at the winter coats they begin growing as soon as autumn arrives, I think our cows and calves must prepare to spend the winter out on an exposed hillside being pelted with snow! But alas, said hillside isn’t to be found on this low-lying, soggy farm.

So, a visit to the hairdressers it is, to have a strip of hair clipped from the centre of their backs as they come inside for winter, so they don’t get sweaty and increase their risk of pneumonia.

I do love seeing photos of others’ out-wintered cattle though, thriving outdoors in all weathers. If you want to see how the system works on other farms, check Frankie at FarFromTheMaddingCows and Geoff at Farm.Food.Life on Instagram!

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