An Alternative to Indoor Housing

By Jennifer Coyne

Originally appeared in Dairy Star

Despite the inclement weather conditions present throughout the Upper Midwest, outwintering is a management style growing in popularity. With proper execution, it is a suitable housing option for dairy animals of all ages and a solution for restoring latent pastures.

Dairy producers gathered March 9 at the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, Minn., to gain more knowledge about outwintering and see animals first-hand that are thriving in an outdoor environment.

Brad Heins, associate professor at WCROC, hosted the field day in collaboration with Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Minnesota Education Coordinator Bonnie Haugen. "With low costs of this setup compared to the greater building costs of confinement housing, outwintering wins every time," Heins said. 

Implementing Outdoor Housing

Before outwintering dairy animals, there are items to consider - location and resources, and feasibility depending on the two aforementioned factors. At WCROC, animals from 4 days of age to lactation are housed outdoors, with the exception of the conventional milking herd. While some groups are in an open lot that includes windbreaks, others have a standing shelter, such as a lean-to facility. 

For young calves, the housing lot should be located close to the barn so their health can be closely monitored. "With adverse conditions, shelter is a must," Heins said. "If we see any animal struggling, especially the smaller heifers, we bring them close to the barn."

Larger animals can be located further away from the main building sites because of their developed immune systems and ability to withstand the winter conditions. The outwintered pens can be assembled on a pasture, field or dirt lot, as long as the locations deter runoff. Once a location is determined, a perimeter surrounding the feeding and resting area can be established with high tensile fence or gates.

"No matter the type of setup, the biggest thing you have to do is provide shelter with a man-made windbreak or trees. Water is also a must," Heins said. 

While most outwintered animals are fed in a bunk, Heins has seen producers put their animals in a hay field with round bales and move the fence line as the cows eat the forage. This method also provides a natural windbreak, Heins said. "This is something that could be set up in the fall and where you don't need a tractor [for feed] in the winter," he said. 

Ideally, all pens are created in the fall when weather conditions are dry. In a pen of 40 cows, the research center will create a bedded pack 60- by 40-feet, establishing the pack with four to six large square bales for a solid foundation to outlast the winter. Heins figured the milking herd used 17 pounds of straw per cow per day this winter. 

"The weather really dictates when and how much we bed. If it rains 10 inches, we should bed again the next day," he said. "Be careful, though, as the pack builds up over the winter and can reach heights of 5 to 6 feet off the ground."

With many options for outwintering, strategies will vary with each dairy. "Visit with others who have had success," Heins said. "Learn how others are doing things; it might not work here, but it gives ideas to take back."

The Outwintering Scenarios

During the tour, producers saw three outwintering scenarios, which could be adapted on their own farm - bred heifers, springing heifers and dry cows, and milking cows. Overlooking a valley, 80 bred heifers have a small tree line as a windbreak and are housed on a straw bedded pack. 

"It's a little different out here with not much windbreak, but the heifers do quite well," Heins said. "We don't have fertility and health problems as long as the bedding is dry."

To ensure the herd does well in the elements, the animals are put out with good body condition scores, said Heins, and then bedded regularly to maintain a dry place to lie. Outwintering the springing heifers and dry cows in an open pasture with trees lining the southwest corner is a newer practice. After four years of no activity on the pasture, Heins decided it was best to return the cows.

"Not outwintering took a toll on the pasture, which was previously cut for grass hay. When we stopped, productivity went down quite a bit," he said. 

Unlike bred heifers, which are bedded and fed separately, the second group of cows is fed TMR and forage on the ground, where they then use the remnants as bedding. "Without bedding, they lay together and generate heat," Heins said. "They also congregate in the trees for shelter."

For more than 10 years, the research facility has outwintered its milking herd on a straw bedded pack with man-made windbreaks, in addition to a tree line. "We've talked to a lot of farmers who want to outwinter their dry cows and heifers, but are scared of putting out their milking cows," Heins said. To avoid frostbite on the cows' teats, the milking herd is bedded every three days with two large square bales of straw. Also, after milking, the teats are covered in a powdered teat dip when temperatures fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Benefits of Outwintering

The benefits of outwintering on cattle health and productivity are comparable to those animals housed in confinement, Heins said. In research studies conducted at WCROC, it was found the milking herd consumed 39.7 pounds of feed per cow per day while those in the compost barn consumed 42.1 pounds per day. Additionally, udders were cleaner, no coliform cultures were identified in the outside environment, and milk production did not waiver. 

Come spring when cows leave - hopefully before mud develops - pastures reap the benefits of outwintering with manure fertilizer throughout the lot, but also in the bedded pack "We usually spread out the pack on the pasture, but we have composted the pack for crop ground. It's also good fertility for that," Heins said. 

To prevent creating a breeding ground for flies, Heins suggested turning the compost pile once a month.

There are many outwintering scenarios to choose from, each being a cost-effective way of maintaining animal health in the winter months and promoting soil health in the spring.