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Don’t bring cows home

The Doans of Black Leg Ranch, McKenzie, N.D., are saving money, time and labor by having their cattle find their own feed all winter (See Page 1). Some keys to the success Jerry Doan and his family have had with season-long winter grazing are:

Don’t bring cows home

The Doans of Black Leg Ranch, McKenzie, N.D., are saving money, time and labor by having their cattle find their own feed all winter (See Page 1). Some keys to the success Jerry Doan and his family have had with season-long winter grazing are:

The right cattle. The Doans have been crossing Angus and Lowline cattle and selecting for framed animals.

Later calving. The Doans moved their calving date from February or March into April, which decreases the amount of energy the cows need over the winter. In the last trimester of their pregnancies, cows have access to new grass, which naturally provides adequate nutrition for them and their calves.

The right forage. Corn-stalks and cover crops must provide adequate protein and energy to put weight on the calves and sustain the cows over the winter. The Doans planted a cover-crop cocktail that included grazing corn, sunflowers, radishes, turnips, kale and other species.

Water. Cows will eat snow and seem to do OK, Jerry says. But water sources are important. They have two wells linked by pipelines at the ranch headquarters. The pipeline’s water supplies the ranch homes, corrals and other buildings. Water then flows through a ground-source heat pump and heats the main ranch house. Then, it goes out to a large rubber-tractor-tire water tank on the cover-crop pastures. When that is full, water flows into a duck pond. The cows sometimes have to walk as much as 1 to 1½ miles for water.

Windbreaks. The Doans’ winter grazing fields have plenty of natural protection, but Jerry and his sons watch the weather closely. They can move cattle to the nearby yard if necessary. Portable windbreaks might be necessary in the future in fields farther from the ranch headquarters, Jerry says.

Daily checks. The Doans keep a close eye on the cows and calves in the winter to make sure they are getting through the snow to the cover crops and water. Because kale and some other species in the cover-crop mix are still green long into the winter, the cattle seem more than willing to dig through the snow to get to them. “Some of the cows seem to have the instinct to dig through the snow. Others watch and learn,” Jerry says.

Key Points

Cow size, calving date key in winter grazing at N.D. ranch.

Cover-crop mix chosen to supply needed energy, protein.

Winter grazing reduced costs and produced many benefits.

Savings add up

The Doans save money on diesel fuel and labor with winter grazing because they don’t have to run tractors to feed hay, blow snow or clean pens every day. In the spring, they don’t have to haul manure from the yard into the field, because the manure was already there. They don’t have hay (but they have enough stockpiled for emergency situations).

Soil and leaf tissue tests indicate the Doans don’t have to buy as much commercial fertilizer to grow cash crops on the fields where the cattle grazed over the winter because of the nutrients released from the cover crop, along with all the manure and urine that the cattle have spread. Last spring, a soil biology test on winter-grazed fields showed the highest microbial biomass level seen to date in Burleigh County, says Jay Fuhrer, Natural Resources Conservation District conservationist, Burleigh County.

If they continue to winter-graze, the Doans will likely avoid a big expense in the future. Because they won’t be feeding cattle in pens in the winter, they won’t need to build a lagoon or other ag waste structure to prevent runoff from the facility from getting into a nearby creek.

Hunting enterprise boost

Planting a full-season cover-crop mix for winter grazing increased habitat for wildlife on their ranch, which is a plus for their hunting enterprise. The Doans have converted houses and buildings on their ranch into hunting lodges and event spaces. They offer guided pheasant and deer hunts each fall.

If they can continue to winter-graze, the Doans plan to add water sources and build more fences, so they can graze different grain fields planted to full-season cover crops in the future.

“Winter grazing seems to make a lot of sense for us,” Jerry says.


GETTING READY: Jerry Doan (center) with sons Jay (left) and Jeremy (right) stand in a full-season cover-crop mix they planted especially to provide winter grazing for their cattle.


FINDING FEED: Cattle and calves graze a field of cover crops in the winter at Black Leg Ranch in North Dakota.

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

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