On the Blog

Challenges of grazing cornstalks in mid-winter: Don't let cows go backwards

We CRYSTALYX® Bloggers have written several articles about cattle grazing cornstalks and other crop residues.  In Nebraska, I often refer to cornstalk residue as our “winter pasture”.   In most years, this is a very abundant and relatively inexpensive feed resource and of decent quality.  Much information has been written and studied by university extension services in a multitude of states about the effects of cornstalk grazing on cow performance, subsequent grain yield,  the need (or not) of protein supplementation etc.

One topic not always discussed with grazing cornstalks is that of the climate.  In different parts of the country like the Dakotas, cornstalk grazing is normally, but not always, limited to a narrow window of time just after harvest and before deep winter snow covers the residue until spring.   In Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and other states, snow cover can be a factor but in most years it is not.   Cattle can graze cornstalks very effectively when there is snow cover, at least for a period of time.   Cows can paw and push through snow even up to 12” deep getting to leaf and husk material.  Prolonged deep snow cover, resulting in potential drifting and freeze/ thaw conditions is where concern begins. 

 Nutrient quality of the residue doesn’t change much due to freeze/thaw conditions.  However as snow becomes packed, more ice forms at night and muddy conditions occur during the daytime hours while temperatures are above freezing.  These conditions add to the trampling effect by cows making less residue (feed) available, and the higher quality fractions of the residue (waste grain, leaf, and husk) are trampled the most.  In addition, residue quality will decrease with increased stocking rate and with the number of days on a field as cattle select the higher quality residue first.  If cattle were grazing a field for a couple weeks prior to a large snow event, the negative effects of snow cover will be noticed faster and be more severe.

In October of 2012 I wrote a blog on cornstalk grazing related to stocking rate, cattle performance, cost, etc...  I mentioned in that article that there is data that suggests protein supplementation may not be necessary on cornstalks.  I cautioned the reader that these situations would be in more “perfect world conditions” such as early season grazing with cows already in adequate Body Condition, or with cows in mid gestation with low nutrient requirements and in good weather conditions.  In addition, mineral and vitamin supplementation should never be sacrificed.   With thin or stressed cows, supplementation with CRYSTALYX® would be warranted and in studies where supplement was offered, Body Condition was enhanced.   Why take a chance not to improve the cow?

If you consider the fall and winter of 2014-2015, we’ve had less than the perfect world situation. Thus far in some areas we’ve had cold weather and considerable snow cover.   This has added environmental stress to cows, increasing maintenance requirements which taxes body condition.  Supplementation of CRYSTALYX® has been and should be warranted going forward if grazing cornstalks continue.  

The above picture showing cornstalk residue still available in field where cows have grazed during significant snow cover and melt. Note that some residue is trapped in ice and potential for more trampling in mud.

The above picture showing cornstalk residue still available in field where cows have grazed during significant snow cover and melt. Note that some residue is trapped in ice and potential for more trampling in mud.

In some cases, producers have been forced to reduce grazing days on cornstalks and move cattle off of fields and have had to provide supplemental feed (hay) while still allowing cows to graze what they could.  Either way, close attention needs to be paid to cow body condition.  The CRYSTALYX® Body Condition Score App available for smart phones is a great tool to have in these situations.  It can help keep track of subtle changes over time that wouldn’t normally be seen from day to day evaluation of cows.

The take home message is that grazing crop residues is a great advantage in the beef business but like in all agriculture production, Mother Nature sets the rules. With good cattle economics today, I would say supplementation with CRYSTALYX®, even if borderline in need is a good investment and pays back now more than ever.  It also helps us prepare for Mother Nature when she does throw curve balls into our management systems.    Preparation, adaptation and adjustments are ongoing in cow nutrition and many different CRYSTALYX® programs can help.