Winter cattle feeding areas are a recipe for mud. These high-traffic areas show the impact of cattle hooves that loosen the topsoil and compact the soil below.

When water and manure are added to the loose soil, a mudhole forms. These areas eventually become terrible places to feed cattle.

“A solution to mudholes during winter feeding is to move the cattle to adjacent cropland,” says Teresa Dvorak, North Dakota State University nutrient management specialist at the Dickinson Research Extension Center. “Feeding cattle on cropland adjacent to the old feeding area is becoming a more common practice in North Dakota. This practice allows the cattle to move to the old feeding area for water and occasional shelter, but the feeding takes place out on the cropland. The cropland is sometimes referred to as a sacrifice area but doesn’t need to be if properly managed.”

By reducing the intensity of the cattle in one area, producers can mitigate problems, but several issues must be considered.

Cropland adjacent to the feeding area allows the producer to move the cattle off the cropland when it becomes excessively wet. The feeding area also should have easy access to hay yards and a water source.

An adequate area per animal is needed to avoid overcrowding. In addition, the specific feeding area within the field should be moved frequently to avoid three main issues:

A heavy buildup of wasted feed - This can cause problems for some no-till drills in the spring and can delay plant emergence. The concentration of manure deposited in one area - The manure can be distributed evenly across the field if the feeding area is moved to various areas around the cropland.

Soil compaction - This can lead to muddy areas and issues with spring planting.

Winter feeding area management also must consider the remaining congregation area and proximity to surface water. Permanent congregation areas around a water access will lead to a concentration of manure.

“Accumulated manure needs to be removed in a timely manner and properly applied to cropland because this nonvegetated area is more prone to runoff and erosion,” Dvorak says. “A grassed buffer area should exist between the nonvegetated area and surface water. A draw or drainageway running into surface water also should be protected.”

Properly managed winter feeding areas contain the nutrients produced by the operation. Sound management practices can reduce soil erosion, keep water clean and help improve the environment.

The use of buffer strips also can eliminate pollutants, which can result from excessive concentrations of cattle. In North Dakota, operations that confine cattle for more than 45 days each year in an area that does not support vegetative growth are considered an animal feeding operation (AFO).

The North Dakota Department of Health (NDDoH) monitors animal feeding operations. Such operations are bound by NDDoH AFO rules. Alternative management systems, such as cropland feeding, will help producers avoid having their operation fall under the AFO rules.

“Properly managed winter feeding areas can be an asset to livestock producers,” Dvorak says. “Correct management also avoids overused muddy areas.”