Winter cattle on the move

Extensive wintering can help the environment and farm

When the snow melted in spring 2015, Cam Hamilton's cleanup routine was different.

Before that winter he had set up a new winter watering system on his cattle farm, just north of Glenboro, as part of an extensive wintering program. That, along with new fencing, windbreak panels and alleys allowed his 150 cows to stay out of the yard as much as possible, resulting in less manure buildup.

"We corn graze the animals so they've been out on the field as a rule, but they used to have to come into the yard for water," he said. "They would tend to congregate in there together and there would be a lot of buildup."

Hamilton's new water system is hooked up to the farm's well and sits away from the yard and any possible runoff situations.

Extensive Wintering of Livestock is a Beneficial Management Practice (BMP) offered through Growing Assurance-Environment. Its intent is to reduce environmental risk, particularly to surface and groundwater, associated with in-yard feeding and confinement areas. The program helps to keep animals on the field by providing funding for portable shelters, fences, alternate watering systems, alleyway and access lane upgrades and shelterbelt establishments. This is provided at a cost share of 65 per cent government - 35 per cent applicant up to a maximum of $50,000.

Spreading nutrients over the land

"It's not meant to be an alternative fixed location, otherwise you could see the same problems," said Mitchell Timmerman, nutrient management specialist for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD). "It has to be mobile, something you can change a few times throughout the winter, pending conditions."

By moving the water source, Hamilton said he also changed the flow of cattle in his farmyard.

"For three years they've been coming to the yard the same way and when the snow melts you can see these patterns," he said. "We plan to switch it so the land stays healthy."

When assessing projects to help fund, Timmerman said he is looking for an obvious environmental problem with the yard. Most often this is either where the confinement facilities are situated or where the animals are getting their water.

"For example, years ago I knew of a farmer who had his confinement facilities on higher ground and there was a large possibility of (manure) runoff getting into the stream," he said. "He saw this being a problem and was able to relocate most of the animals to an alternate yard site and feed some in the field, further away from the stream."

While it is primarily an environmental project, extensive wintering can also reduce costs on the farm. For example, there could be less cost associated with hauling manure in the spring and the need to use commercial fertilizer may also be reduced because the manure is naturally being spread over the land.

It can also be healthier for the animals. Spending the winter on the field means they have more room for movement between portable shelters and windbreaks. They also won't be stuck in the yard with the possibility of standing water.

However, choosing a good extensive wintering site includes accounting for what will happen during snowmelt in the spring. This practice must not transfer a problem from the yard to the field or create a risky situation where one did not exist.

"Cows are not fish," said Timmerman. "If the yard site for some reason has standing water in October or November you don't want to have your animals in there."

Learn more about the extensive livestock wintering BMP (PDF 100 KB).