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Windrow grazing extends fall and winter pastures

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

University of Nebraska studies found windrow grazing can save money on feeding costs and enable cows to more efficiently graze fall and winter pastures.  

Dr. Jerry Volesky, range and forage specialist at University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s West Central Research and Extension Center, says this practice has been around for a number of years and can work very well in many situations.  

“Windrow grazing has become fairly popular and is a part of many producers’ feeding programs. It works very well for producers who are using annual forage crops, with some warm-season species in the mix,” Volesky says. “These are crops with a lot of growth, which are then cut at the peak of their forage quality.”

Advantages of windrow grazing

The advantage of cutting and leaving feed in windrows, rather than letting cattle harvest it on the stem as stockpiled forage later, is it can be cut at optimum maturity, locking in the nutrients at a higher-quality stage. If left on the stem, it becomes overly mature and dry, losing nutrient quality. 

“Stage of maturity is the important thing when harvesting hay or creating windrows for winter grazing. When cutting it, producers capture the quality at that particular stage,” says Volesky.

“The annual crops we utilize for this are usually planted in early to mid-July, which provides adequate period of growth. The windrows can be made in September and then grazed all winter long,” he says.

 Volesky conducted a study nearly 20 years ago, which compared leaving crops in windrows versus baling the crop, hauling it to a stack yard and then hauling it back to feed cows in the winter.  

“We grazed those windrows November through February with weaned calves weighing about 500 pounds at the start of the program. We looked at several things, such as how well the forage quality was maintained through winter. We found it kept just as well as hay that was harvested in big round bales,” he explains. 

“Our calf weight gain on windrow grazing was equal to that of calves fed hay traditionally. We looked at the economics, and windrow grazing was a cheaper alternative because we saved the cost of baling, hauling the bales and hauling them back,” he continues.  

Volesky adds, “Another advantage is we are leaving the nutrients in the field rather than hauling them off. Any organic matter left, plus manure from the cattle, serves as good fertilizer for the next few years.”

“We strip grazed the field in sections, giving the calves about a week’s allocation each time, using electric fencing. They waste less forage this way. Otherwise, they have a tendency to pick through the windrows over the entire field, bedding in the hay and wasting more,” Volesky notes. 

“We tried to measure waste, and the waste we saw with the calves was about 25 percent of the forage. We didn’t try to push them very hard to clean up the feed. After the study ended in February, we brought in some dry cows, and they ate more of it, so there wasn’t a lot of waste,” he continues. “After the second go-round with cows, our waste was probably equivalent to what we’d have feeding big round bales out on the field.” 

Forage quality considerations

“The forage quality is maintained quite well through most of the winter, but by March or April there is more variability in weather, with warming and cooling, and maybe some rain instead of snow. Here in the Central Plains area this time of year, the likelihood of heavy, wet snow might be a problem, and there will be some deteriorating changes in the windrows,” Volesky says.

Large windrows keep better than small ones.  

“It depends partly on the type of forage and the equipment used. If it’s a very productive sudangrass or sudangrass mix producing three to four tons to the acre, those will be fairly large windrows. We need a properly formed windrow that settles down well,” he says. “If it is too large and fluffy, a strong wind may scatter it all over the field.”

A fairly large windrow, even though it settles down a bit, is easy for cattle to find under deep snow.  

“Once the cattle learn about windrow grazing, they root down through the snow and find the forage,” explains Volesky.

Volesky notes it helps to cut the forage at a higher stubble height than when cutting hay, so windrows are not lying directly on the ground. On a perennial pasture or hayfield, there is minimal damage to the plants under the windrow, since the plants are cut after most of their growth cycle is complete.

“The feed lies in the windrow for several months, and there’s some potential for mold, but we noticed once the hay is cured and dry in the windrow, it didn’t spoil much, other than some discoloring of the top surface from rain or snow through the fall,” he explains. 

“Underneath, we didn’t have any mold or spoilage problems. However, this will depend partly on the amount of rain received in the fall. Here in Nebraska, or on the Great Plains, fall weather is usually relatively dry,” he says. 

In most cases, producers are grazing dry cows on windrows rather than calves and letting cows graze the whole field rather than strip grazing with electric fencing.  

“Initially strip grazing was a recommendation to minimize waste, but a lot of folks today just graze the entire field, depending on the size and number of cattle. They see good results without the extra labor of moving electric fence,” Volesky notes. “A person may trade labor saved with a bit more waste, but feel they come out ahead in the long run. It all depends on their situation, time and goals.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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