South Dakota ranchers Reuben and Connee Quinn have relied on snow in winter pastures for more than 30 years. They say cattle do well with snow as their only water source if they know how to use it and have adequate snow that’s not crusted and hard.

You must monitor weather conditions and have an alternative water supply – or a place to move the cattle – if snow runs out or becomes crusted. “You walk a fine line, but use of snow can help cattle utilize pasture that’s poorly watered,” Connee says.

The Quinns ranch in far southwestern South Dakota. “Water development in this arid country is a challenge,” Connee says. “Utilizing snow allows us to take advantage of pastures with excellent winter protection and winter grass that, when supplemented with protein, can meet nutrient requirements of pregnant cows.”

Use of snow in place of water hasn’t changed the production of their cattle. “We still get a 90+% weaned calf crop,” she says. Conception rates and weaning weights have stayed the same, whether cattle are using snow or water.

When Connee was growing up near their current location, her father’s cows did fine in winter, grazing far from any water. “It was common to see cows and horses wintered in this manner. I thought it was a normal management practice, until listening to Canadian researcher B.A. Young at a Wyoming range cow-calf seminar in the 1970s.

“He asked the audience if anyone had seen cows wintered on snow as the only water source and I was the only one to raise my hand. He presented research results from Canada that showed similar feed intake and weight gain for cows eating snow or consuming water,” she says.

Young found that eating snow is a learned experience; many cows quickly learn by watching other cows eat snow, but those with no role models may go thirsty before trying it.

He also looked at the effects of eating snow on body temperature. Heat created by digestion was adequate to offset cold snow. In field tests in western Canada, there were no increases in winter feed requirements of cows that used snow as their only moisture, compared with cows having access to water.

One experiment looked at average daily gain in feedlot calves, and there was no significant difference between the two groups. The only difference was that the “snow” group ate more slowly, alternating their eating with bouts of snow licking. Total amount of feed intake was the same.

In the late 1980s, the Quinns lost some leases and took several hundred cows to new pastures.

“We were pulling the cows into the watering area every day with cake to make sure they were drinking, because they weren’t coming to water on their own. It was the first time they’d had water available and weren’t trailing in to drink. They knew where the water was, but they preferred eating snow to the long walk,” she says.

“I tried to contact Young to consult with him about this, but found he’d moved to Australia. I was referred to Don Adams at the Range Research Station at Miles City, MT. After relating my story and learning about his research, we knew cattle can do all right, and we just let them eat snow,” she says.

Adams found that 2% of cows in his study drank no water during the study period (November-February). Only 65% drank water every day. The others drank every second or third day, eating snow the rest of the time. It was impossible to tell, by looking at the cows, which ones were drinking and which were using snow.

Quinn says cattle have to know how to use snow. “We’ve always been careful to put only mature cows in pastures where they may have to eat snow as their only water, keeping our replacement heifers, bred heifers and younger cows on water,” she says.

Then, in the winter of 2009, they had abnormal snowfall before Christmas. “We had 300 weaned heifers on winter pasture and couldn’t get to them for more than two weeks. They had no water and no supplemental feed during that time. When we were finally able to get out there, I thought we’d be lucky to save half of them, but they all survived. They had good protection from the storm in that rough country. We could see they’d been eating yucca on some of the ridges where snow had blown off a little,” she says.

Using snow for water enabled those calves to survive.

“Evidently they learned the hard way, as described by Young, or learned from their mothers in late spring or early fall. They all did well, and had a 94% pregnancy rate this fall,” she says.
-- Heather Smith Thomas