Unfortunately, in Ohio, dealing with soggy pastures, mud, and ruts is all too familiar for livestock producers with stock out on winter pastures. Saturated unfrozen soils, dormant pasture grasses, and high animal pressure/hoof action is a formula for mud. So, what is the big deal about mud? Well, for starters, muddy conditions, especially when it gets to hock level or deeper, increases the nutrient requirements of our livestock. Walking in it requires more energy and wet; cold mud can decrease the insulating ability of the animal’s winter coat. Beyond this, I will suggest that there are other economic, environmental, and social costs that must be considered and factored into a management plan.
For livestock producers, the productivity of the pasture is essential to the productivity of the operation. Through careful management, the productivity of the pasture can increase from year to year. When soils do not freeze in the winter and rain is more common than snow, a wrench is thrown into pasture management. I am sure that we all have seen examples of, or may have even experienced firsthand, where there was a loss of some productive grazing paddocks over the course of a couple of wet winters when the soil didn’t freeze and the sod base was destroyed as cattle wintered on stockpiled fescue/clover paddocks. Once the sod base is destroyed the way is now open for weeds to come in. Commonly it is the summer annual weeds such as pigweed, ragweed, lambs quarter, barnyard grass, and others. Overall productivity of these paddocks is decreased, and grazing opportunities are lost. Over time, and with careful grazing management, the sod base of the pasture can be established and those weed problems brought under control, but often those pastures need to be returned to higher production more quickly.
Re-seeding those paddocks and pastures where the sod base has been destroyed is one option to return those paddocks to productivity, and it offers the opportunity to introduce improved plant genetics into the pasture. This can be advantageous since many of the new forage species have higher yields, increased palatability, and increased disease and drought resistance compared to forage genetics from 10, 20 or more years ago. Even so, seed costs have jumped in recent years and there are fertilizer, lime, and equipment costs associated with re-seeding. First and foremost, you need to make sure the pH and fertility is adequate for the forages you want to plant. If it is not, the new seeding could germinate then die or never produce to its potential. Next it is a good idea to know what you need for your livestock. For example, dry beef cows probably do not need high quality alfalfa and stockers may need a higher quality and more palatable forage then what fescue grass can provide. Other ruminants can graze pastures close, so orchard grass, which stores energy at the base of the plant, may not be a good option if you have sheep or goats too. Poorly drained fields or fields with a lot of deer pressure are not good options for alfalfa. My point here is that while some good can result from destroying a sod base under wet winter grazing conditions, it is not a desired outcome year after year and there is an economic cost associated with restoring the sod base.
There are several winter pasture management options to deal with mud. One option is to install a heavy use-feeding pad. When conditions are such that mud will be a problem, livestock are fed on the pad. If the soil is frozen, livestock can be fed or grazed on the pasture. Talk to your local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office about size and construction requirements. If may be possible to get cost-share dollars through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Another option to minimize mud problems under winter pasture management is to decrease stocking density. Letting livestock have access to more acreage, and frequently moving the area where hay is fed can reduce the extent of mud problems.
In some situations, it may be more practical to just set aside a sacrifice area that will become muddy and torn up. Select this area with care. It should be an area that is relatively level with low soil erosion potential. This option might be chosen if livestock density cannot be spread out enough to stop mud damage to a large percentage of the farm’s pasture paddocks and/or to paddocks that might incur significant soil erosion. In this case, it comes down to choosing to minimize environmental damage, as well as minimizing renovation costs over a greater acreage.
Winter grazing management, particularly when stockpiled pasture is limited and/or the soil remains unfrozen is a challenge because sod can be destroyed, and mud can be formed. How those muddy conditions are planned for and managed have concrete economic costs in terms of animal performance, pasture productivity, and pasture renovation. However, the livestock farmers with a long-term view must also consider the environmental and social implications of dealing with winter mud conditions.