Go Ahead & Graze Your Livestock On Winter Pasture

Not only can you graze livestock on winter pasture, there are some distinct advantages to providing animals this nutrient-dense forage.

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: Courtesy Braden J. Campbell, State Small Ruminant Extension Specialist, The Ohio State University

For hobby farmers and serious homesteaders who keep grazing animals, holistic grass management—the best kind of rotational grazing—is the gold standard. After all, grass is free food, daily sunlight captured to feed our cows, sheep and other ruminants. Good grass management is how we keep that sunlight harvest happening and happening well. Small-paddock, short-duration grazing, with a long rest and complete recovery before the animals return, grows more grass of higher nutritional value and pumps carbon into our soils for sustained fertility and improved rainfall retention.

First, you must get comfortable with the holistic grazing routine with daily moves, handling and moving temporary fence, and gauging paddock size and forage composition. Then, you’ll observe the benefits of intensive rotation for your livestock’s health. Now, it’s time to take grass management to the next level. A whole season worth of untapped benefits waits for you in the form of winter grazing.

Winter Grazing

In most of North America, pastures don’t do a lot of growing in winter. However, if you approach the dormant season with stock­­­piling, your livestock can reap many benefits over feeding hay. The Natural Resources Con­servation Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, defines stockpiling as “allowing standing forage to accumulate for grazing at a later period, often for fall and winter grazing after dormancy.” 

The advantages include the same benefits as with grazing at any other time of the year. Manure and residual forage stay on the pasture in winter, so grazing means fertilizing, too. Also, when animals move to clean ground every day, they avoid the pathogen buildups that frequently become a problem during winter confinement. With daily moves, impact is under regular observation, so pugging and compaction of the soil can be avoided. 

In addition to all these year-round benefits, grazing winter stockpile brings big bonuses in the form of improved animal nutrition. Maybe it will surprise you to know that stockpiled forage (mature pasture plants saved for the winter) often surpasses good hay for nutritional value. Yes, we mean that the grass out standing in our pasture in winter provides higher levels of nutrition than the hay in our barns. Our cows stay fatter on pasture than under cover, and they make more—and more nutritious—milk.

The first year we put cows in the field for the winter, it was because we were short on hay and space in the barn. A neighbor’s field hadn’t been mown in ages, and the grass, weeds and briars stood high. It didn’t look too good, but we took a chance and began rotating two yearling steers over the pasture. Their only shelter was periodic access to the tree line. Meanwhile, all the other cows were in the barn, out of the weather, eating decent-quality square bales.

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It was an especially cold, snowy winter, with plenty of opportunity to find out if this was going to work. By spring, the jury was in. The barn-kept cows looked fine, or so we would have said before. They were maybe a little on the scraggy side but were robust and hearty. However, they couldn’t compare with the winter-
pastured animals. 

The stockpile animals were fatter, fluffier and shinier. Their fur almost sparkled. Their energy was higher. In spring, they even shed off early. They were just better all-around animals—after spending a winter in the field in all weathers, eating standing forage. Not surprisingly, after that experience, we began moving the whole farm toward winter grazing. 

winter pasture livestock
courtesy MUExtension417


First, we had to learn to make stockpile. Because stockpiled forage, despite the success of our first wonderful experiment on the neighbor’s neglected field, isn’t just old grass. Stockpiled forage is pasture that has been reset—grazed or mowed—so that its late-summer regrowth is mature and ready to graze when winter closes in and growth stops. 

In our region—northern Appalachia, zone 6—we usually stockpile from July to mid-August. That means we graze in July and August those parts of the farm we want to have available for early the next year, January through mid-April. The grazing goal is to remove top growth on the plants in those pastures so that they’ll begin growing again. This new plant material, when cold temperatures and short days halt growth for good, will make standing forage to feed the livestock in winter.

Stockpile season will vary, of course, depending on your location, pasture plants and winter climate. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to learn the right times for stockpiling in your region. Around here, mid-summer forage regrowth tends to be slow, so recovery of pastures during the stockpile season (July/August) is gradual. Then when September arrives, with its cooler nights and (hopefully!) more frequent rainfall, plants really take off. By November, when pasture growth pretty much halts for winter, the area we grazed in the heat of summer is tall and lush once more. 

Almost anywhere in the temperate U.S., you’ll see a similar pattern. Your local NRCS office may be able to help you with dates or even put you in touch with a local grazier or grazing group. Check your gardening map for local rainfall patterns and average first frost dates. These can be helpful.

In any case, just try it. After all, you’re just trying to grow good grass, and the grass wants to help you.

Not Just Any Old Grass

So what makes forage stockpile? So far, we’ve just been practicing standard holistic rotations, right? Well, this is stockpile because you’re going to stockpile it—that is, you’re going to hang on to it until you need it. For us, that starts in January. You’re not going to come back to this part of the pasture in your regular rotation because you’re saving it for winter. 

This mature, mid-summer grown grass is special. It’s nutritious and somewhat ligneous (woody). This makes it able to stand up against whatever weather the winter throws at it. The mid-summer regrowth we stockpile is more ligneous than later fall regrowth, so we want to hang on to it for when it’s needed.

For fall and early winter, when our stockpile is off-limits, we’re on the rest of the pasture, where we’ll gradually shift to smaller paddocks, leaving less residual as the growing season slows down. That’s because none of this year’s leaves will survive the winter, so we won’t need them for future photosynthesis. We can just leave enough coverage to protect our soil through the winter. 

Generally, we get almost two passes over this half of the farm, because the paddocks grazed in September, and even early October, will regrow enough for a second grazing in early winter. When we run out of grass on this second pass, that’s when we move onto the stockpile.

winter pasture livestock
courtesy Practical Farmers of Iowa

Grazing Stockpiled Forage

Grazing stockpile is almost just like any other good holistic grazing—limited paddock size, short duration impact and long rest with complete recovery. 

Water can be an issue where temperatures drop much below freezing, so you may have to leave a lane open back to the barn or frost-free tank. Back fencingerecting fences to prevent animals going back to regraze new growthis less necessary during dormancy, but it’s important to monitor animal impact to prevent soil compaction. We give our animals a new paddock every day and backfence when it’s practicable, to keep impact and manure distribution as even as possible.

Grazing impact—how much forage is left after grazing and how heavily the ground is trampled—is something else that can be different in winter. During the growing season, the residual forage serves two primary purposes. 

  • First: It protects the soil from erosion by wind or water and keeps ground temperatures in the comfort zone for soil life. 
  • Second: Because those left-over green leaves are still capable of photosynthesis, they’re still providing the grazed plant with energy for regrowth. 

Winter forage, on the other hand, is almost entirely dead leaves, finished with photosynthesis forever. It still protects the soil as a physical barrier, but it’ll never feed the parent plant again. Instead, when the plant resumes growth in spring, it’ll get the energy for regrowth from its own roots. So winter grazing residuals can be planned with soil protection in mind but without making provision for regrowth energy. This means you can graze a winter pasture a little more closely than you would in summer.

winter pasture livestock
courtesy Seth Nagy

Four-Season Sustainability

Winter grazing can do so much for your farm! It lets you utilize more forage more of the time, and it also puts manure where it belongs: on the pasture. In addition, by keeping livestock on pasture year-round, we’re building toward long-term herd wisdom—that hereditary knowledge of pasture and forage plants passed down through a herd or flock, telling the members what to eat, when to eat it and why. 

Fred Provenza, a professor emeritus of behavioral ecology in the department of wildland resources at Utah State University, says that winter confinement interrupts ecological foraging patterns, putting nutritionally discriminating animals on a single-source diet and effectively dumbing them down.

The homestead or hobby farm shouldn’t be just a petting zoo. We want our farming to be viable in every way: economically, socially and ecologically. And for these goals, stockpiled forage is an indispensable tool, saving us money, increasing local independence, and deepening ecological complexity. Winter grazing wins on every count. 


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Hay vs. Stockpile 

We were really surprised when our local Natural Resources Conservation Service technician told us that well-
prepared stockpiled forage tests higher in nutrients than good second-cutting barn hay. When we began grazing our dairy cows in the winter, though, we saw the results for ourselves. 

First, there is the appearance and behavior of the animals themselves. Our pastured cows stay fat and fluffy all winter long. 

And because milk cows through the winter, we have another metric to observe: milk. While cows make less volume of milk in the winter, the milk components (food solids) from our stockpile-
fed cows go way up. Our winter milk from stockpile is almost half cream by volume—yes, half—and that cream is higher in butterfat than summer cream. And when we use winter stockpile milk for making cheese, we get 60 to 70 percent more cheese per gallon of milk. That’s a huge difference! 

We never saw those gains from hay-fed cows in winter. On the contrary, when we fed hay in the cold season, we were accustomed to just make do with winter dairy products.

Stockpiled forage is really nutritious. You can see the difference!

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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