Forage Focus: Are Your Cows Mud Wrestlers?

By Vic Shelton, Grazing Specialist, NRCS and published in BEEF Cattle by Ohio State University Extension - Winter time often seems to create unique challenges with livestock and mud being one of the worst to deal with!
calendar icon 15 March 2007
clock icon 4 minute read

Above normal rainfall in many areas last fall got us started early dealing with the frustration of mud this winter. Many counties had a very wet…well, entire year. This unfortunately often sets us up for a lot of mud and makes us happy when the ground finally freezes up; free cement!

For most people, it quickly comes at a time when there is no longer any quality or quantity of forages left to graze and it is time to start feeding hay. When you start supplemental feeding will depend on your soils, your forage base, and animal numbers.

I really like to keep animals grazing as long as possible. Grazing livestock on stockpiled forages is a great way to extend the grazing season plus keeping the tractor out of the field a little while longer. It is this time of year where a lower animal/forage base ratio is very beneficial.

On most moderately-well to well drained soils, the stockpiled forages provide a pretty good base and will "hold up" well until grazed off. This is especially true if the time period that the animals are allowed to graze is limited, such as through strip grazing. Strip grazing is the allocation of planned amounts of forage for the cows to eat and once eaten they are moved to the next allotment. This increases efficiency of the harvest and shortens the time period the cows are actually on the site. Don't overgraze it though since you still need to leave some forage base behind. The earlier you want to graze it in the spring, the more important this becomes, and the earlier you graze it hard in the fall, the fewer carbohydrates stored in the roots for spring growth.

If you have to keep the livestock on pasture during extremely wet conditions, what can you do to minimize the damage?

If you are lucky enough to have some "sand" ground, then you are a step ahead of many. Sand or sandy soils are better drained and don't get muddy as quickly as loams and heavier soils. If you have some sandy cropland that is available to be grazed in the fall that is even better, since you can rest your pasture longer adding even more growth and durability. If that crop ground is also highly erodible land (HEL), don't overgraze it to the point of removing too much residue which is needed to stay in compliance with USDA programs. So remove livestock as necessary to stay in compliance.

Next best, is utilizing a sacrifice area. This is ideally an area that can be renovated easily. Once you are able to start grazing again in the spring and are off this site; if time, conditions, and weather permit, reseed these areas, either with a temporary seeding (annual) or a perennial seeding.

I have seen many poorly chosen sites utilized for this sacrifice purpose and left in disturbed condition. When areas such as creek bottoms, woods, and erodible sloping ground are utilized for a sacrifice area, water quality is almost always adversely affected. Try and choose a stable suitable site for these areas and rotate them if possible. Sometimes, these sacrifice areas can be paddock(s) that you plan to renovate anyway.

Mud is certainly worse around feeding, watering, and other concentrated areas. One of the best solutions for these concentrated areas is to install a "heavy use protection area", i.e. feed and watering pads. These are fairly simple to construct and better yet, very economical.

Start by leveling the area, removing excess organic matter and manure, and also top soil if necessary, to get a firm foundation to build on. Geo-textile fabric is laid down and then crushed limestone, usually #53's, is applied 6-8 inches deep depending on the site and conditions. Follow by topping with a couple inches of lime. The lime makes it easier to scrape and/or clean later and a little lime spread out on the field or pasture certainly won't hurt anything.

These pads supply a firm well drained area for feeding hay in rings, feeding silage in bunkers and for areas around watering tanks. Similar designs can also be used for concentrated walking areas and lanes.

If you happen to be on softer or wetter soils, then a layer of #2 lime stone could be laid underneath for a firmer base.

Why go to all this trouble? Mud increases stress for both us and the livestock. Mud increases energy requirements and at the same time can decrease intake. Mud will also tend to increase disease problems. Bottom line is mud can cost you big bucks!

Rock and geo-textile fabric is cheaper than concrete and require less maintenance than rock alone. These feed pads can also be placed right along the outside fence line, adjacent to a road or drive. In this way, the silage, grain, or hay can easily be fed without entering the field with the tractor.

Heavy use protection areas are cost-sharable through several USDA programs. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation office for more information.

March 2007

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