Feeding free range cows in winter


As you are probably aware, Free Range dairy requires producers to graze their cows for a minimum of 180 days a year. Whilst we are striving to give our cows as much freedom as possible, we have to accept that cows will need to be housed in the winter months on most farms, since the grass stops growing and conditions under foot can get very wet and muddy.

So, what should free range cows eat in the winter?

Since Free Range Dairy is all about a commitment to grazing grass for the benefit of cows, farmers and consumers, I strongly believe that grass, conserved as silage or hay, should form the basis of winter diets for free range herds. Not only because it is the natural food for cows, but because it also produces healthy milk.

A number of farmers feed maize silage or arable wholecrop silage to their cows in winter, which are a valuable source of starch (energy) for them. However, research shows that milk produced from cows fed on maize silage is higher in saturated fats than milk produced from grass silage. This is an important consideration for Free Range Dairy farmers, as we are not only concerned with giving our cows seasonal access to graze but, also, delivering healthy milk all year round.

How much grass should we feed in winter?

Most people acknowledge that a healthy balance needs to be maintained between forage and concentrates (cereals, proteins) fed to dairy cows and a ratio of 60:40 forage to concentrates (on a dry matter basis) should be maintained all year round. Many of us are striving to produce a considerably higher proportion of our milk from forage and use less expensive concentrates. My own experience suggests that feeding mixed forages can improve the total amount of milk produced from forage. So, perhaps maize and arable silages do have a place in the winter diet of free range herds?

On our farm, we shall be feeding straight grass / red clover silage this winter and aiming to ensure that this makes up 70% of the winter feed. I believe it is important that we give consumers a simple and clear message about what our cows eat and the exclusion of maize and other forages helps us to do that. But, I want to know what other farmers think is realistically achievable on their farms. I am discussing this question with the nucleus of farmers who have signed up to our Pasture Promise at regional meetings being held this month. In the meantime, I welcome input on this matter from other farmers and anyone who would like to source milk from free range herds.


3 Responses to Feeding free range cows in winter

  • I think for dairy farmers to robustly adopt a 100% approach to concentrating upon feeding dairy cows a diet of grass in all its forms throughout the year is true Free Range Dairying.
    Dairy farmers should be brave and forgo the growing of maize and arable whole crop silage and exploit all the good knowledge that’s out there to focus upon what pastures can really contribute to a dairy cows diet. Introducing more varieties of grasses, clovers and other wild plants (herbs) particular to the farms soils will I’m sure pay dividends.
    Whilst challenging, a dedication to feeding dairy cows grass in all its forms is still the cheapest form of feed, and of course more importantly, the natural feed of choice for the cows!
    Whilst increasingly expensive bought-in concentrates are a vital requirement during the winter housed period, the challenge will always be to get as much milk from grass as possible whatever the time of year.

  • While I agree with you John in theory but in practice not sure. I have grazed cows 24/7 – 330 days of the year , for over a decade .Using NZ methods of carrying summer grown grass over for the Autumn and autumn grown grass for the spring. While grazing Fodder beet,kale or Stubble turnips for the winter. I have been on dry free draining land . While I except most farmers use this as an excuse, in some cases it may actually be true.
    I am of to see a true mob grazer this week and will learn more about year round grazing.
    So will report back.

  • I do honestly think that the art of grazing has been overshadowed, sidelined even, for far too many years now (present company excluded Clyde) due to an ‘industry’ pre-occupation with high-yields, housing and Holsteins as a system of milk production.
    Did you visit ‘the mob’ Clyde, and how did it go? I know mob grazing is practiced more extensively in the USA, and it’s being carried out with great success by a few ‘pioneering’ beef producers over there.
    A very interesting and thought provoking way to farm, but I imagine it would be more challenging for dairy farmers and their cows though. I can see the potential of mob grazing as a very low cost dairy farming system though, with the right cow and milking once-a-day.
    I think for a keeper of dairy cows to leap into mob grazing would be supremely radical, and a step in the right direction in my opinion, and the perfect counter-balance to the overly high cost system that is high-yield high-input dairying.

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