Back-to-the-future winter grazing possibly an option in modern times

When the first herds of cattle walked into what is now Alberta, they lived or died by being able to graze the native ranges

When the first herds of cattle walked into what is now Alberta, they lived or died by being able to graze the native ranges during the winter.

From about 1880 till 1900, when the big ranches were being set up, almost no effort was made to put up sufficient hay to feed the large herds. Hay was put up where they could for emergency use, but it was never enough.

Besides, the further east you went from the foothills, especially in southern Alberta, the less usable native grasses were for hay production.

Besides, putting up large quantities of hay took labour, horses and machinery, all of which cost money. That all went contrary to the accepted way to get rich in the big range cattle business of the day. Cattle were expected to live and grow on grass, sunshine and water — all of which was assumed to be relatively free. There is some truth to that if one forgets about that one nasty hazard — winter.

Back in that day, there was an assumption that if buffalo could live through the winter just on what they could graze, then cattle should be able to do the same. True, they are both ruminant grazing animals used to foraging, but they have some distinct characteristics that set them apart particularly in the winter.

Buffalo by natural selection are designed to tough out the cold and to scratch and paw for grass even under a couple of feet of snow. They also have that unique ability that slows down their metabolism in winter which allows them to survive on low quality grasses, forbs and brush. Cattle can do somewhat the same but only if conditions are not severe. They can survive winters but not howling blizzards that deposit many feet of snow. They can paw for grass, but not very deeply and their metabolism requires more and better feed than brush and forbs.

None of that worried early cattlemen as long as the winters were relatively mild with little snow cover.

In addition, early cattle had Texas Longhorn blood in them and had evolved through pretty awful conditions for a couple of hundred years in North America. That process led to pretty tough cattle that could survive most conditions. But such cattle were far from being productive taking up to five years to be market ready.

Ranchers introduced more productive British beef breed genetics into their herds, but that led to less tough cattle on the range. However, with natural selection and by putting up more hay for feed, the improved cattle herds survived and prospered.

Except, of course, in really severe winters. The two worst were 1896 and 1906 — the latter was so severe with so many losses that the era of the big old-time ranches was over. Cattle losses were in the hundreds of thousands of head and many of those ranches went out of business.

Cattle are still winter grazed today albeit under careful stockpiling and grazing management. Most ranches have backup hay supplies in case conditions become severe.

It’s by far the cheapest way to over winter a cow. That’s caused cattlemen further north into the central part of the province to experiment with a form of modified winter grazing. That’s when forage or greenfeed is cut into swaths in the fall and left for the cattle to find later in the winter.

That works as long as the snow isn’t too deep and cattle can paw for their feed. If they can’t, they have to be fed hay. This winter is one of those times when in many areas high snowfall is causing grief for cattlemen trying to winter graze their cattle either way. The cattle can get exhausted or just give up trying. That sort of happened in the bad years of 120 years ago.

Some producers use another type of winter grazing that makes feed available to cattle, but still involves the cost of baling. They leave large round hay bales in the field and cattle roam out to them to feed on during the winter months. Again, there is some benefit, but if the snow is too deep, then cattle might not even be able to reach bales in fields. It seems back-to-the-future winter grazing has some benefits, but also some annoying problems that come back to haunt the producer.

− Ahead of the Heard