It’s no secret that farming changes with the seasons, and as the weather starts to turn and the nights draw in, our daily tasks on the farm start to change dramatically as we get ready for the ‘winter routine’ and start to bring most of our cattle inside.
But why do we do this, couldn’t they just live outside on pasture all year round?
Well, some do. And this year, will be the first year for us that we will ‘out-winter’ some of our girls, our native traditional Herefords. Who are hardened to the worst of the UK’s weather with their shaggy coats, but most importantly are smaller and lighter than our continental breeds.
The fact that they are smaller and lighter is the key here as in theory, all cows could stay outside.
You only have to look around the countryside to see that lots do, but supplementary feed has to be provided to them, as the quality and the growth of the grass is not the same all year around.
That’s why you see farmers taking bales of hay or silage out to their animals to make sure that the cattle are getting all of the goodness and calories that they need to stay fit, healthy and warm. As like humans, cattle will burn more energy when trying to stay warm requiring more food to maintain their condition.
But keeping heavy, roaming cattle outside as it gets wet – forget how cold it get’s in winter the decision to bring cattle in all centres around it being wet – only leads to one thing!
Not only at the gateways, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to drive around to check their stock, but around the feeders in the fields, where farmers are having to take the supplementary feed to and generally wherever the cattle have decided to roam.
This damage to the ground is known as ‘poaching’ and the problem with poaching on your permanent pasture fields, in the simplest of terms, is that it damages the soil structure, reducing the pastures ability for growth in the future and allowing a gap for weeds to grow.
So we’re bringing the cattle in, not to shelter them from the elements, but to protect the land to ensure that we have the grass available for them to eat later on in the year.
If we’re lucky with the weather, our cattle are housed inside during the months of November to March and so far this year – so good!
In our system we also plant 10 acres of cover crops, mainly consisting of Kale and Turnips which the cattle love! Strip grazing some of our more mature cows outside until they are ready to calve, for most of the winter period.
The trampling of the ground in this scenario is actually really positive as the cows tread the remanence of the cover crop back into the soil as they walk over it in a more concentrated area. This feeds the fungi in the soil, who play an important role in locking carbon dioxide back in to the soil and producing oxygen. Both of which are incredibly positive for the environment.
It’s going to be interesting for us to see what impact our Herefords are going to have being outside this year, which we expect to be mininal as they’re small in numbers, small in stature and we’re giving them quite a large space to freely roam, but we’ll see.
But for those that we’re bringing inside, there has been a lot of sorting out to do to make sure that they’re happy and healthy in their new shed environment.
And the last few weeks have been spent considering the nutritional needs of our cattle, sorting them in to groups accordingly, then clipping out their backs and de-worming them.
We clip out their backs to reduce the potential for pneumonia as once you start to get a few cows in to shed it’s surprising how warm the sheds become and this change in temperature can lead to illness.
It’s funny you can actually see them get ‘sweated up’ when they become too hot so making sure you have good ventilation in the sheds, that they’re not over stocked and that you take off some of their winter jackets is really important.
And the de-wormer – well this speaks for itself and also stops your cattle from becoming riddled with lice, lung and intestinal worms.
It’s easier for us to keep an eye on the cattle indoors, to make sure their needs are provided for and they get all of the food and nutrition they need, this is particularly true for those calves and yearlings who are still developing. It’s also a great time for the younger cattle to get used to being around us, to being handled and to become better socialised.
I can see the benefits of both indoor and outdoor wintering and will be paying close attention this year to see how cattle fair in the different environments, out on grass with supplementary feed, strip grazed in the cover crop fields and inside our sheds.
Until the winter is over though and we can look back and reflect on things the waterproofs, wellies and woolly hat are well and truly on!