Keep the Cows in the Corn, Even during the Winter Stoms

Final Report for FNC98-210

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $4,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We have two eighty acre and one sixty acre parcel. We need to cross a state highway to get from the eighty our home and buildings are on the next eighty and then cross a township gravel road to reach the sixty. The 220 acres are all good tillable land. The house and buildings occupy ten acres. We plan to erect an electric hi tensile 5 wire perimeter fence around two eighty acre and one sixty acre parcel that comprise our home farm. It is all good tillable ground but we want to be able to graze any crop residue that is available and also put this land in a long rotation with alfalfa and grasses for management intensive grazing for both stockers and cow/calf.

We built a terrace in 1996 to control water erosion. We put 8.2 acres in additional farmstead shelterbelt and field windbreak in 1997. In 1998 we added 22 acres of field windbreak and 11 acres of grass in a filter strip, all through the CRP program. This gave us ten fields varying from 10 to 20 acres that will be sheltered with from one to three rows of trees. The trees will protect the crops and livestock from both the hot and the cold winds and should greatly reduce snow drifting. However, it will take from 7 to 12 years for the trees to achieve the size to have a major effect.

- Graze our cows in our corn fields all winter
- Recycle the fertility and increase the biological life in the soil
- Animals stay cleaner and healthier
- Easy access to water
- Fencing controls the cows at all times

With the winter staying so nice the fall and winter of 1999-2000, we were able to graze off our new seeding of perennial rye grass, white clover, chicory, and alfalfa. Then we grazed 5 acres of grazing corn (with varying results – some of the black white faced yearling cattle gained over 100# in 23 days while some of the younger calves gained much less). We still have them on the south side of the highway. They get alfalfa hay, shelled corn and graze some alfalfa orchard grass west of the corn strip.

We have three 7x12 panels set up for storm protection which they only use when it is real windy. We have had wind chills from -30 to -50 degrees three times and they are found behind the panels but they look good.

We were able to graze 70 acres of our neighbor’s corn stalks with 56 cows and 50 calves for about one month before they wanted to work them down. We continued to strip graze 20 acres alfalfa/orchard grass that had been stockpiled since the middle of July and feed 75 tons of wet sugar beet pulp under an electric wire. We have fed 59 corn stalk bales, 60 oats hay bales, 24 alfalfa bales, and the sugar beet pulp ($300 for 75 tons). A total of 8,526 animal unit days which consists of 56 cows (1150#) 115 days and 50 calves (400#) 56 days. All the manure is spread around the 20 acres with the stalk residue. We placed eight 7x12 windbreak panels in a semi circle on a hill crest. When we weaned the calves we put twenty 10 foot corral panels in to complete the circle and trapped the calves inside with hay and water. The calves were weaned December 12 and moved off the pasture on December 19. They got the best windbreak but the cows stayed down the draw southeast of the windbreak where we fed them so they got wind protection from northwest wind. All came through the -30 to -50 wind chill in good shape.

I have 20 cows grazing east of the gravel road that will be moved when the steers are sold. We have over 100 bales spread in a grazed corn strip about 100’ by 1100’. We’ll move two round bale feeders and electric rope the rest of the winter. Cows and feed will be weighed. Air and water temperature, wind speed, and moisture will be recorded.

We have built the 8’x8’ portable fountain platform from 3” bridge plank and four railroad ties. We had to modify the plumbing between the fountain and the quick coupler six feet in the ground. The fountain has been working well with only a little ice in the corners in the cold morning, much different than the two 300 gallon tanks we have for the cows. The ice on those tanks can get 4” thick overnight and also freeze in from the sides.

We built four 7x12 solid windbreak panels that we will compare with the purchased perforated panels as far as snow drifting and wind turbulence.

In looking for good cattle handling equipment we came in contact with a company that made portable windbreak panels. They were 7’x12’ with 1 1/2”x3”x1/8” square tube frame and perforated steel sheets. We found it worked better for us to use that size framework which we could get within 40 miles than to get used oil well pipes at a greater distance. When physically working with the panels, we could handle 7’x12’ (one person in emergency), much more realistic than 10’x20’ panels.

In comparing the solid steel sheets to the perforated, the wind is very calm within a few feet of the solid panel so that cattle will stand or lay right against the panel. This does create a problem in that the manure stays thawed in this area and the cattle that lay in it and come out to eat all wet on one side even in -15 degree temperatures or -50 degree wind chills. Behind the perforated panels that cattle stay back about 3-4 feed because a little wind comes through but the little air does freeze the manure pack and you don’t have the manure building up on your metal panels. But in the wide open area with a long sweep with no snow catch, you will get some snow building up on both sides of the panels about 4’ away.

Our water system was a challenge putting in because we rented a trenching machine but it wasn’t available until the end of October. My son and I were each planning to lay about 6000’ of two inch PVS pipe six foot under ground with about twelve water points.

A water point consists of a 15” plastic drain tile that goes down to a quick coupler on the 2” line. Any of the water points can be used in the winter with an energy free fountain by slipping two 14”x30” insulated tubes into the 15” tile. We use a six foot piece of schedule 40 PVC pipe with a male end on one and a 1” quarter turn PVC valve on the other end. We stick the pipe with the male end down the drain tile and it snaps into the female hydrant. We have attached an eye bolt with a hose clamp on the male end and ran a light nylon rope from the snap hood on the male end up to the valve. When we want to uncouple, we just put tension on the rope and push down on the 6’ PVC pipe and it uncouples from the hydrant 6’ in the ground.

I have one energy free fountain that has worked well. In the winter of 1999-2000, I had 28 1000# steers and it stayed open all winter. A few days it had a thin film of ice on it in January. In 2000-2001, I had only seven steers on it and it has started to get a ¼” of ice on overnight if the temperature is around 0 degrees F. Our water line temperature has gone from a little over 50 degrees F. In the summer to 40 degrees F. In January and February in both 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 with six inches of snow cover on the ground. This is why it’s more important to have a few cattle drinking out of the fountain regularly so the average water temperature in the fountain reservoir is at least in the mid 30’s.

I have four 7’x12’ perforated panels in a semi circle 30’ northwest of the energy free fountain. This protects the fountain from the wind and also encourages the cattle to gather close to the fountain in windy cold weather. When the panels, either solid or perforated, are placed in a V or semi circle pointed into the wind, it will split the wind and snow and settle the snow in long drifts down wind from the ends of the panels leaving the area behind the windbreak snow free. This area stays snow free for several hundred feet even if the wind protection is only 70’. The cattle can be fed and rest in this area on windy days.

We have had some success and some challenges with placing bales out for the winter feeding. It works well as long as it doesn’t drift too much snow. If the bales are only 20’ apart, the drifts will get very deep because they cause a general windbreak and some of the bales get buried in the snow. When the ground froze solid, we had trouble using step in posts. We had some success using a cordless drill to drill small holes in the frozen ground with a masonry bit and stepping the posts into that hole. The plastic posts become brittle when the temperature is below zero and our breakage went from nothing during the summer to an unacceptable economic loss in the winter. It was easier for us to use ½” fiberglass posts six foot long and stick them 2-3 feet into the bales so they would get the wire three feet from the bales. We did have some trouble with younger calves going under the wire in the snow and then either knocking the wire off the post or pulling the post out of the bale when they came back in with the cows.

In 1999-2000 winter, we grazed the cows on corn stocks and alfalfa until January with very little supplemented hay. In the 2000-2001 winter we started feeding hay in the end of October and have had to continue to do that because they hay fields and cornfield have a foot or more of hard snow on them.

We have kept a group of 20 cows one half mile from our home farm since early December 1999. We own sixty acres in this bare section. We planted three rows of trees around it and three rows of trees down the middle in the spring of 1998. They will give good snow and wind protection in about five years but not much yet. The cows have had four 7’x12’ windbreak panels for protection and there is underground water but we have our one energy free fountain in a different location so I have used a tank to water them.
The winter of 1999-2000 worked quite well. We had bales put out in a feeding area and later moved in when we decided to keep them there all winter and spring. They calved in the feeding area in late March and April with little trouble with snow. This year they will calve in May.

This year I had less hay myself and in the area from the dry summer. So we started feeding some sugar beet pulp under a wire. Then we got some snow storms that left two foot drifts in the field. We couldn’t get a semi trailer into the area. We then went to feeding the pulp from a stock pile a half mile away with a tractor and loader. Since then the stock pile has been snowed in and feeding area is hard to get a tractor through the snow. We have been feeding some shelled corn and small bales by hand next to the gravel road.

We also had two groups of fat steers behind windbreak; one was solid, the other perforated. The group with the solid windbreak also have some protection from snow and wind from two building sites about 1000’ northwest of their wintering area. The other group is in the wide open with just three 7’x12’ perforated panels for ¾ mile in any direction. Health wise, both groups have done fine. The cattle behind the solid panels are dirtier and wetter but the cattle behind the perforated panels have three foot snow mount inside and outside the shelter. With all the cold weather and wind this winter, they have not gained as well as I had planned. They did have to come away from the windbreaks for both feed and water.

I also have a group of seven grass steers that were not ready to butcher when the snow came so they are in a separate pen with four 7’x12’ perforated panels and an energy free fountain. They were about 1000# in December and are getting hay and water. They will be ready to finish on grass this spring. All these groups have young trees that will give a lot of extra wind and snow protection in a few years.

We Learned…
- We could have water in different locations and we were able to use frost free fountain all winter to water cattle. As a result, we were able to graze areas without hauling water.

- The windbreaks did protect the cattle, even in -50 degree wind chill.

- Due to that lack of snow in the winter of 2000, we were unable to make a meaningful comparison between the different types of windbreaks

- During the research stage, we discovered ready make portable panels that were more suitable for our situation than the panels we built.

- The grazing strategy accomplished our goal of spreading the fertility over the entire area; however, the fertility was more highly concentrated near the wintering water point.

- I think I have proved you can keep any of these different types of cattle healthy out in the open with windbreaks and underground water supply. But without a lot of advanced planning and feed storage, it can take a lot of time and energy to keep them fed when the winter gets hard and long

- I think it’s great for grazing corn stalks until they get snowed and hen moving to a more protected area until some of the snow melts. But the cattle can survive the bad storm right in the field and can be moved in a few days or weeks

- Light yearlings or heavy calves I think would work the best for the longest period of time or all winter because of a simpler feed supply, hay or silage. I think using a little more elaborate wind and snow break system would work quite well. If you would set big square bales in a V 15’ high, pointed northwest and have a water point 300’ southeast of the windbreak that was protected with perforated panels from both NW and SE, you could have a 300’ feeding area that was relatively wind and snow free. The calves could self feed from a silage pile in that area. Some hay, round or big square, could be arranged outside the protected area for nice weather and some small squares could be on the top or the ends of the V.

- If you are going to use a relatively narrow trencher, 6” or narrower, any debris or vegetation should be chopped very fine or raked away from the trench path so when you are back filling the trench, it’s easy to get just the dirt back in the trench and it will pack much better. We were in a hurry and trenched through combined corn stalks and standing 10” alfalfa and paid the price when we were back filling. We also trenched between rows of small trees and crowded one row instead of staying in the middle. When we were back filling with a tractor and rear blade, we could only work from one side of the trench.

- We have had a challenge at a couple of our water points. One was in a low area in the field, the other a tank ran over for several hours. In both cases, the excess water found the newly filled trench and followed it to the water point. Then the water along with the soil it was carrying filled the water point from the bottom. When the water went down, it left about a foot of silt in the bottom covering up our quick coupling hydrant in the bottom. This was disgusting but not a disaster. We used a post hole digging pincher to gently reach down and remove enough silt so the hydrant was visible. We had not closed the cap on the hydrant so it was full of dirt. We used a rod slightly smaller than the female port on the hydrant, pressed down gently, and the water sprayed out and clear to port and it was ready to use again. To help prevent this from happening, I would suggest a person pour a couple sacks of bentonite or some water repellent clay around the outside bottom of the 15” tile and tamp it well. Then hard tamp the first few feet of the trench in both directions.

- Portable windbreaks look very good for late fall and early spring grazing but if they are to be used during the total winter, you should have some natural snow catch. We have three rows of trees all around our ten pastures and small fields. They are three years old. The evergreens are 2’ tall, the poplar are 10’ to 15’, and the ash are 4’ but we were overwhelmed with snow this winter. The snow on the level in the fields is 2’ deep and of very dense snow that you can’t drive a tractor through. I have tracks that I have continued to use but they catch more snow than level.

- We had to continually get grain to the fat cattle. We didn’t have enough roughage for the cows for the entire winter and some of our bales were buried in snow. Once the snow gets over a foot deep or hard snow, the cattle tend to use only small paths and small access for lounging so the fertility is very concentrated by the water source and lounge area even if they have ten acres in the pasture. As our trees get taller and denser, we plan to be able to winter our cows on grazing corn without having the snow bury our corn or restrict our cow movement.

1) Winter Field Day – February 2000 – public was invited, speakers were: Dennis Johnson, Scientist, West Central Research & Outreach Center (WCROC), Mike Reese, Graduate Student, WCROC, and Audrey Arner, Land Stewardship Project
2) “Environmental Journal” Video Program – our portion of the video was professionally produced at the field day, we felt the video was fairly accurate. The video was aired on their weekly television program
3) Sustainable Livestock Systems Bus Tour – August 2000, our farm was one of the four stops on the day long tour which was open to the public. Several staff members of WCROC & LSP attended
4) Article in Agri News
5) Articles in local newspapers
6) Chippewa River Whole Farm Planning and Monitoring Team visited
7) Field Days advertised on local radio stations
8) Chippewa Soil and Water Conservation District Annual Report


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.