Winter has many challenges for both producers and livestock. Producers are often looking for better ways to not only feed and water their animals more efficiently, but also with an eye on holding or reducing costs. Bale and swath grazing and forage stockpiling can all contribute to a healthier bottom line.
When feeding animals this way water is always a concern. Letting livestock water out of live water is not an environmentally sound practice, and is now prohibited in many areas. Dugouts are not safe for watering unless specific watering areas are fenced off and then you have to break ice daily. Footing and safety concerns when using dugout watering systems are a factor for both producer and animal. Using new types of frost-and energy-free systems requires planning and traditional watering systems can be costly (installation, maintenance and energy usage) and a fixed water source can limit the producer’s ability to utilize their full grazing program potential.
Some producers use nature’s winter water source, snow, for their animals. While this seems a good and natural choice there are some precautions producers should keep in mind when deciding to use snow for water.
Successful snow grazing depends on several factors, some of which can be managed by the producer, and others which cannot. As a precautionary note on the semi-arid Prairies we do not consistently get the quality and quantity of heavy -moisture snow required for snow grazing as a primary water source for livestock.
Measuring the moisture content of snow can be as simple as melting a quantity of snow and measuring the melted water. As a general rule, 10 inches of snow equals one inch of water. Snow holds most of the water content closest to the ground, which is why you can break through a dry ice crust in spring and find yourself standing in a slush puddle.
If possible, producers who use snow grazing for water should do so as a secondary or supplementary water source, and plan to use it in emergencies. Cattle, in general, will grow accustomed to using snow for water if given the chance to adjust, but the snow that provides sufficient moisture should be free of ice crust and wet. Dry snow or snow with a heavy ice crust will not yield enough water for cattle to meet daily water requirements and can sharp ice may injure their mouths.
When snow-grazing cattle, the producer should be very aware of animal body condition and monitor it carefully. Adjusting to snow as a water source can take a few days, and the animals should be checked often during this period. Be sure to investigate any animals which are overly vocal, pacing near their usual water source or losing condition. This is especially a concern in pregnant cows and cattle close to calving in the colder months.
The energy required to eat enough snow to slake a thirst and to melt it internally may not be worth the stress and extra feed which animals need. There is some debate on this and most resource sheets will note differing opinions, it is important to read about conditions in your area and not rely solely on fact sheets.
Animals require up to 40 litres of water/day in colder weather, and unless snow is very wet and easy to ingest they may be under supplied. Cattle nearing calving or in early lactation, with higher water requirements, should not rely on snow for their sole source of water. They will rapidly lose body condition.
Generally most provincial agriculture departments have guidelines and suggestions for snow grazing. It is important to check the condition of cows daily and no less than every two days when snow grazing to ensure there is no loss of body condition or undue stress on the animals.
Energy-free and frost-free water systems can be economically placed and provide year-round water for your livestock. Many producers have designed their own systems and many designs are available online. Knowing the water quality of your snow and understanding your livestock will allow you to make choices for their winter care that do not compromise their welfare and well being and don’t negatively impact your bottom line.
Winter care, when planned in advance, can include snow grazing but the plan needs to ensure it is providing the basics of food, water and shelter for any animals.