There are many livestock producers who utilize stockpiling and winter grazing in our area. When grazing in the winter months, snow can occasionally be used to meet some or all of our animals’ water requirements. Most of the research on this topic is from the western U.S. However, I believe their findings are very applicable to our many beef, sheep, and other grazers.
In short, most livestock can consume enough snow to meet their water needs while out on pasture. However, certain conditions must be met, and livestock should always be monitored to ensure that they are being raised humanely with easy access to all their basic needs.
The ideal conditions for snow to be consumed as the sole source of water include soft-not crusted, clean, and deep enough snow for livestock to get mouthfuls. Cows utilize their tongues to scoop up snow, so a couple inches or more of snow is best. Sheep may be able to utilize more shallow snowfalls to meet their needs. Eating snow is a learned behavior, so mixing older cattle with younger ones can speed up the learning curve.
Based on studies from Montana, when given access to warm, liquid water and snow, cattle still consumed a majority of their water needs in the form of snow. Some ate snow exclusively and most only drank liquid water every couple of days. Cattle on maintenance or early pregnancy will eat 30-40 lbs. of snow daily.
Another consideration is the body condition of the livestock. Beef cattle should be at a healthy body condition score of 4 or greater when on pasture eating snow. This is in part because when eating snow, dietary energy is needed to warm the snow while also maintaining internal body temperatures. Thin animals of any species will struggle to consume enough food to produce that amount of heat when forced to eat snow. Animals can drink water much faster than they can eat its equivalent in snow, so time is a factor as well. Time spent eating snow is time not spent eating food.
The type of forages your livestock are grazing plays a role as well. We may not always remember this, but fresh forages may provide most, or all of an animal’s water requirements. For producers who are using brassicas or fall-planted small-grains, these are often 80% moisture when grazed and stockpiled annuals about 70%. But corn stalks are only about 25-30% moisture and often require access to liquid water in addition to available snow.
Some trials with yearling sheep showed that gains were slightly less when only snow-access for water was given compared to those with drinking water, but body conditions were all still acceptable and the sheep were healthy. Growing animals have a proportionately higher water need than mature animals on maintenance. Other stages of livestock that require higher quantities of water include late gestation and early lactation animals. Sheep pregnant with twins and triplets will require more water before and after birth than ewes with singles. Animals with these increased water demands should not be expected to perform with snow as their only water source.
This management strategy is key for western state producers utilizing open rangeland where providing water access and keeping it thawed would be extremely difficult. However, for many producers here, a shelter or water source is not usually miles away. When possible, it is still suggested to provide the option of liquid water to livestock. If they choose not to drink or even avoid traveling to the water source, continue to monitor the accessibility of the snow. As soon as activity is noted at a water source, provide enough water for animals to get as much as they want. It is always recommended to check in on animals at pasture for changes in behavior and health. Any time snow become less ideal or entirely absent, return to normal watering practices immediately.
This management strategy is not an excuse to neglect or abandon livestock for days because there is a possibility that their needs are being met. However, producers should not be alarmed if animals show a preference to eating snow over drinking water under certain conditions. Fresh, soft snow can lighten some of the winter watering workload, but “grazing” snow is like grazing forages- the best results happen under careful management.
Matthew Nussbaum is an OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Assistant and may be reached at 330-264-8722.