Providing stock water on winter pastures is one of the ongoing challenges of a year-round grazing program. Many cattlemen feel they don't have the water resources to allow cattle to stay out all winter, so they end up feeding hay in just a few areas close to home. Feeding hay is a much more expensive option than winter grazing.
Stock-water development is a critical component of Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) systems. In the summertime, I really emphasize the importance of keeping the travel distance to water relatively short. This enhances grazing and manure distribution and helps ensure lactating cows and growing stock are getting adequate water intake.
Water requirements are much lower in the winter because we're frequently grazing dry, pregnant cows. Because cattle come less frequently to water and drink less in winter, travel distance isn't as critical.
In the summer, multiple water points are needed to draw cattle away from areas that need to rest and recover. But because pasture isn't regrowing in the dormant season, we can allow cattle to travel back and forth across larger areas for water access. The bottom line is one water source can service a much larger acreage in the winter than in the summer.
Simplifying winter grazing
Most of our winter-grazing systems are designed around just a few, year-round water sources. These might be a flowing creek or spring, a tank kept open by an overflow system or a solar bubbler, or a geothermal or heated drinker.
A little forward planning around your available stock water can make winter grazing a lot simpler. First, determine which fields have the best opportunity for a winter water source. In mid to late summer, use fields with strictly summer stock water to allow other fields the opportunity to stockpile for winter. Remember, a little bit of water can go a lot further in the winter than in the summer.
We generally use intensive strip grazing to utilize stockpiled pasture or swaths, moving temporary electric fence every few days. We set up the first strip right around the water point, and then work each successive strip away from water.
We use no back fence in the winter because cattle traffic to and from water isn't likely to hurt previously grazed areas. In the summertime, I like to keep stock within a ¼ mile of water, but it doesn't bother me to have cows walking more than a mile to water in the wintertime. Thus, one water point can serve quite a large area for winter grazing.
Using limited water sources
Here are a couple of examples of utilizing limited water sources in the winter, one from my Missouri years and one from here in Idaho.
On our old Missouri farm, one of our grazing units was 80 acres divided into 23 permanent paddocks. We had a pond at one end for a stock-water source, and a pump and pipeline ran water to all 23 paddocks. In the summer, we used a movable stock tank, and the travel distance to water was always less than 700 ft.
When these 80 acres were stockpiled for winter grazing, we would just let the cattle come back to the pond for water rather than use the portable tank system in the winter. They were dry pregnant cows and the half-mile walk to water was good for them. We could still allocate stockpiled forage out every few days by moving them to a new paddock, but they only needed to use one water source all winter.
Here in Idaho, we winter-graze dry, pregnant cows on a 300-acre pivot. This grazing cell has six permanent water tanks spaced equally around a fence located halfway between the pivot center and the outer reach of the pivot. In the summertime, we can use those six tanks with water supplied from the irrigation mainline, and the travel distance is about ¼ mile.
But the system is also set up with a line to a spring on the mountain for use in the winter months. We keep the winter system open with overflow and one line that continuously flows to an open ditch to keep the buried pipeline open.
When it gets really cold, we can only keep two of the six tanks open, so we just strip graze away from those two points. The cows may end up being as much as ¾ mile from water as they travel around the inner circle fence, but it's no big deal because they are dry, pregnant cows, which need exercise.
Winter grazing is critical to being a low-cost, cow-calf producer. Take a second look at your winter stock-water resources. There may be more opportunity there than you think.
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208-876-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.