Bill West of Ripley, WV, did something most folks in the beef industry only talk about. He wintered part of his cowherd with no outside feed inputs. That's no hay, no soybean hulls, no lick tanks, no cultivated fall crop, no range cubes, no over-seeding. Only existing forages growing in the fields were used.

Over the years, West has tried many different winter-feeding systems for his 150-head crossbred beef cattle herd. He likes the result of his 20-month experiment with year-round grazing the best of all, he says.

West was able to pasture 15 cows with calves and one bull from April 2000 to January 2002 without any supplemental feed. And, he's got the figures to prove it works. (See Table 1 and Table 2).

West leases a 175-acre farm, consisting of 54 acres of open grassland and 121 acres of woodland. The soil type on the 54 acres of grassland is rated as having good grassland potential and is evenly divided into 27 acres of ridge top/hillside and 27 acres of bottomland.

Table 1. Cost of winter feeding (1999-2000)
winter feeding period (Nov.15 - April 15) with 15 cows
Item Qty. Units Price/Unit Expense
Hay 140 rolls $20 $2,800
Property rental 1 year $600 $250
Minerals 500 lbs. $0.12 $60
Labor with tractor to feed — ⅓ hour/day 50 hours $25 $1,250
Labor with tractor — spring cleanup 10 hours $25 $250
Total average winter feeding costs (previous year) $4,610.00
Cost/cow for 15 cows $307.00
Cost/cow/day for 150-day period $2.05
Table 2. Cost of winter feeding (2000-2001)
winter feeding period (Nov.15 - April 15) with 15 cows
Item Qty. Units Price/Unit Expense
Property rental 1 year $600 $250
Minerals 500 lbs. $0.12 $60
Labor during grazing period 21 hours $8 $168
Fertilizer materials 2.6 tons $223 $580
Fertilizer spreading with tractor 2 hours $25 $50
Total average winter feeding costs (2000-2001) $1,108.00
Cost/cow for 15 cows $74.00
Cost/cow/day for 150-day period $0.49

The ridge top/hillside is divided into two separate fields, and the bottomland is divided into four fields. Tall fescue is the predominant grass species with significant amounts of bluegrass, white clover and orchard grass.

West applied 200 lbs. of 18-46-0/acre on March 15, 2000, to the 27 acres of bottomland, which was 36 lbs. of actual nitrogen/acre. No lime was applied as soil pH was 6.1. These bottomland fields have been in long-term pasture and hay (grassland) for 10 years and have sustained.

To handle the spring flush of grass, five cows with calves were added April 1, 2000, to the 15 already present, and removed Sept. 15, 2000. He moved the herd from one field to the next every seven days, something West admits “is not the ideal way to do it, but it fit my schedule.” He says he got into the routine of moving this group of cows every Sunday morning.

On July 20, 2000, he harvested 29 tons of hay from the 27 acres of bottomland (1.09 tons/acre).

“I saw there was too much wasted grass in these fields, and the cows were not eating it. Since I was done with the rest of my hay, I decided to go ahead and make hay in case I needed it,” he says.

After three weeks, cattle were then rotated back into part of this area and the rotation continued all winter, spring, summer and into fall 2001. No supplemental feeding, additional inputs or soil amendments were made.

In mid-March 2001, West asked Ed Smolder of the West Virginia University Cooperative Extension Service (WVU-CES) to body condition score (BCS) his cows. After looking at the cattle, Smolder simply said: “Don't worry. The cows are a BCS 5 or better.”

The results proved Smolder correct. West had a 100% calf crop in 2001, and the calves averaged 14 lbs. more at sale time (568 lbs.) than calves in 2000 (554 lbs.). More importantly, when cows were pregnancy checked in November 2001, every cow had bred and was a BCS 6 or higher.

There are numerous unnoticed benefits in a system like this, West says. The lack of heavily traveled farm roads in winter and relatively small manure concentrations are two. Elimination of manure loading, handling and spreading greatly reduces the chance of polluted runoff.

Extended grazing has also meant more money in his pocket. But he's quick to point out that “everyone's situation is different, so what works in one locale or operation may not necessarily work in another.”

Over the past 10 years, West has worked with the Western Soil Conservation District; Smolder of WVU-CES and, most recently, with Jonathan Cummings, grassland technician with the West Virginia State Conservation Agency.

“When the lean times return to the cow/calf business, I plan on selling down and using more year-round grazing,” West says.

Luke Hunter is a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ripley, WV, with more than 27 years of experience on his own forage-based beef cattle farm.