Having just come off of another substantial snow storm, let’s take a look today at a few ways winter conditions can impact our herd.

Just how much snow or ice can be a problem for animals grazing is debatable. This back and forth can mostly be attributed to two factors, the forage itself and precipitation we receive.  The height and structure of forage is a huge part of availability under snow or ice. A foot of stockpiled grass or a hay swath with lots of air is going to be easier to break into and get meaningful forage from than a shortly grazed pasture or corn residue lying on the ground.

When it comes to precipitation, what we receive can impact availability as well. A heavy, wet snow will be harder to dig through than dry, fluff.  While this latest snow may not have been the wettest on record, the large amount will result in the bottom portion getting compressed and more difficult to dig through.  This can also happen as snow is exposed to warm air or sunlight and softens or melts a bit before refreezing at night.  Compression and the forming of a crust makes animals trying to dig through for a bite have to work that much harder.

With ice, thickness and length of time it is maintained are the two factors to keep in mind.  An inch of ice that melts in a day or two after warm temperatures can have less of an impact and ½ inch that sticks around for 3 or 4 days.

So what is the level we need to watch for? I like the 6 and ¼ inch rule.  6 inches of snow or ¼ inch of ice, and animals are going to work harder to eat.  At this point we need to start watching animal condition, and be ready to supplement, especially when temperatures drop.  With colder temperatures, animals require more and more energy just to meet basic metabolic needs. 

Animals can learn to graze through snow and ice, but their grazing efficiency is decreased.  It’s also important to keep in mind that this is a learned behavior, so don’t expect animals that have relied up on hay in the past to pick it up overnight.  It might be tempting to push animals so they are hungry enough to dig down and find forage.   Be careful not to over-do it, especially if you see body condition slipping.  A better option may be to help facilitate the learning by scrapping snow away from an area so animals can see for themselves the food below the snow.

One way to be more efficient and limit impact of winter grazing is to strip graze. This keeps animals from packing down snow or trampling feed into the ground by limiting the amount of field they have access too.  Additionally, limiting animal’s selectivity prevents cherry picking the best stuff first and leaving lower quality forage to the end of the grazing period.  While initial grazing may not be as nutrient dense, the overall quality of diet during the entire grazing period will be constantly higher quality.

Knowing how to handle snow and ice is important for a healthy herd come spring.  Taller and fluffy forages like stockpiled pasture or windrowed grass are easier for animals to reach under snow and ice. Keep an eye on animals that must dig through more than 6 inches of snow or ¼ inch of ice, especially when cold temperatures are thrown into the mix.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu