Outwintering is the practice of keeping cattle outside for some or all of winter. Thinking about “outwintering” can evoke images of cows standing in a muddy field, eating silage from feeders and knee deep in mud. But there is an alternative, a better approach.
Done well, outwintering can help reduce farm costs (e.g. reduced labour, fuel, bedding, machinery use), improve animal wellbeing and soil health.
Bethany Lintern, FAI’s Sustainability Programme Assistant and Silas Hedley-Lawrence, Farm Manager at FAI discussed the process and rewards of outwintering.
Conventional outwintering practices often involve ring feeders which lead to over crowding and damaged soil. This is not how our farm team approach outwintering.
On FAI’s farm, whilst outwintering as part of the AMP grazing project, costs per head per day related to housing, feed and labour for suckler cows have more than halved, from approximately £2.40* per day to £1.04 in 2021 without negatively affecting cow body conditioning score.
What does outwintering at FAI involve?
The most important consideration when outwintering cattle is planning - considering what are the group size, age and nutritional requirements of the cattle to be outwintered, and what infrastructure needs to be in place. According to AHDB, to calculate the nutritional requirements of the group, in terms of daily dry matter intake, cattle under 300kg liveweight should be receiving 3% of their body weight in dry matter per day, whilst animals over 300kg liveweight should receive 2.5%. At FAI, we use a 3% figure for all cattle ages and weights as this allows for some flexibility within the system and means there is a buffer in case of inclement weather conditions.
Over winter, cows are grazed in cells; small paddocks marked out by temporary electric fences. Each cell contains 4 – 5 round bales of hay (depending on the size of the group) which are placed there during the summer period. The hay is collected from our SSSI meadows on the farm. When the cattle move into the cell, the hay bales are rolled out rather than feeding the cattle with ring feeders. Rolling out bales allows all cattle to access the hay, reduces crowding during feeding which in turn and reduces the potential for poaching and damage to the pasture. Rolling bales also spreads residual hay across the cell. Approximately 20 – 25% of the hay is left in the cell and is trodden into the ground by the cattle. This provides the soil with additional carbon and the seed from the plants in SSSI meadows are spread, helping to improve plant biodiversity in the pasture.
The group remain in a cell for approximately one day before being moved to the next cell. If conditions are very wet, the cattle may be moved even more regularly.
FAI’s modified quad for the installation and moving of electric fencing for adaptable grazing cells.
In terms of infrastructure, cattle need access to plentiful, clean water, and mobile electric fencing to divide the field into cells. We aim for a minimum of 160 cells, for 160 days, at 0.5ha/cell. We then calculate the estimated available forage against the daily feed requirement of the group and factor in a 75% utilisation rate on available forage. This indicates the deficit needed to be made up by hay bales to meet the full daily feed demand of the group being outwintered. The water infrastructure has previously been a limiting factor at FAI, but a £6,800 investment in infrastructure and water pumps was more than paid off in the first year alone from savings through outwintering. Initially, the team used permanent electric fencing but found it was unnecessary and can limit the system flexibility. Investing in mobile electric fencing equipment is relatively cheap, and fences can be easily moved by adapting a quad bike to make the process very time efficient for minimal investment.
Once you have established your plans for outwintering, the main task during outwintering is to manage the animal impact on the ground by varying the time spent in a cell. The difference between this process and AMP grazing in the growing season is the growing forage utilisation rate. In the Spring, the aim is to graze 25% of available forage, during summer this increases to 50% and Autumn it is 50% - 75%, depending on when that pasture is due to be grazed next.
What are the rewards?
The FAI herd contains suckler cows, their calves, and replacement heifers. With cost savings from not having to house, reduced feed requirements and labour costs, which equates to around £134.24 per day, we saved £24,163** in 2021 by outwintering. This is without taking into account the economic benefits associated with improved ecosystem services. For farms partaking in regenerative practices with larger herd sizes grazing each hectare, the savings can be even more substantial.
It is not just economic benefits are gained from the outwintering process. Fields once characterised by bare patches and limited plant diversity, a symbol of overgrazing, are now flourishing. Clover, legumes, orchids and several wildflower varieties, of which many are uncommon in the UK, can now all be found in the outwintering fields. None of these plant varieties were manually introduced, other than being moved to other parts of the farm via the hay bales. Since 2020, we have reduced the amount of overgrazed grassland by over 40% to less than 5% land area and increased our Ecological Health Index Rank (associated with community dynamics, energy flow, water cycle and mineral cycle) from medium to high.
There are benefits for the farm team too in terms of their job satisfaction. Silas reflects “It’s great being out in the park, moving cows on a crisp morning, compared to walking around a dark barn...in a concrete yard”.
Additionally, there is the time saved not having to spend half the day sat in a tractor burning diesel to bring feed and bedding to the cows. In this system, the cells are planned back in June/July for that winter and all the hay bales are already placed in August (see figure).
Who can get involved?
The FAI farm is clay soil on a flood plain which often goes underwater during winter. Farmers would traditionally not have dared outwinter in this area due to how wet it gets. In order to account for this type of land, as with all outwintering, it is just a matter of having a good stockpile in the pasture and not grazing that pasture from August 1st to get a dense thatch which holds the soil structure. Water infrastructure is also always essential. The cows are not left on these areas that flood and they graze the wetter areas earlier in the year before moving to the higher ground.
We believe that if we can make regenerative practices work on the FAI land, then any farmer can do it. You make a plan, you make yourself adaptable to change and you just give it a try. Silas’ advice for farmers interested in outwintering is to “just go out and try it with a small group by planning and doing the maths. You’ll learn from your mistakes and be able to tweak your plan so you are more and more successful each year with more cows”.
In April 2022, FAI ran an event to help farmers get started outwintering. We are already receiving accounts and photos from the farmers from that event of all the successes they have had. Keep an eye on our socials or join our newsletter mailing list for details of future events at FAI.
*AHDB housing cost for 600kg suckler cows
** These figures are calculated using AHDB’s initial costs on the prices of housing for 600kg suckler cows and 400kg heifers with a breakdown of prices for silage, bedding, housing, and feeding. These were compared to FAI outwintering costs in 2021 to calculate savings for FAI’s 75 sucklers (and calves) and 26 heifers using an outwintering time of 180 days.
Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (2020) Weighing up the cost of winter feeding. Available at: https://ahdb.org.uk/news/weighing-up-the-cost-of-winter-feeding (Accessed: 23 August 2022).
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