I have raised this question in the past on some forums and in person to cattle ranchers/farmers, and I have had various responses. Some people just think I am crazy. Some people have gotten very angry with me. When there is such a variation in responses, it makes me wonder. Maybe I am crazy, or maybe I am thinking so far outside the box that other people don’t know how to process it.
I have said many times on this site, as King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I am certain that I am not the first person who has asked this question. Maybe there is already someone who has answered it… I just can’t find them.
Typically when I write an article for this site, I select a specific subject about which I am interested, I research it, then I share my findings. This is a bit different, because I cannot find the type of information for which I am looking. I am reaching out to my readers and their connections for more information.
Here is the basic question:
Is there a way to overwinter beef cattle without a barn and without having to provide supplemental feed?
Here is the background and other pertinent information:
I am planning on raising beef cattle within the next few years. I am planning on doing this in central Tennessee. The Winters there are cold, and there is a chance of snow accumulation, but it is nothing like the snow when I was living in Minnesota. Of course, the pasture growth will come to a standstill. The cattle will have higher metabolic demands due to the cold. I understand this, and this is why many people utilize barns or other buildings/shelters for their animals during the Winter months. Everyone that I know of, that has true Winter, will provide supplemental hay, silage, or other feed during these months as well.
This seems like a lot of time and work, and I wonder what Permaculture solutions we can find for this.
I have been contemplating this for many years, and I feel pretty certain there are ways to overwinter cattle, and other medium to large herbivores, without building major structures and without supplemental feed. I don’t think it is a simple fix. I don’t think it is going to happen in a season or two. But I know it can be done. The question really is, what will it take, and is it worth it?
When a person new to Permaculture asks me what Permaculture is, I usually say something along the line of, “Permaculture is a design science that uses natural systems as a model for sustainable or regenerative agricultural and community systems.” When I am addressing a “problem” in a Permaculture design, I look to nature for the solution.
So what happens in nature during the Winter to large herbivores that live in cold climates?
- They have developed the ability (through Natural Selection) to survive through the Winter.
- Many survive, but some die – these ones either had bad luck or bad genes.
- They have lots of fat stored for the Winter.
- They lose a lot of weight in the Winter.
- There are less wild animals per area in nature than domestic animals per area on most farms/ranches.
- They don’t use barns… they hunker down in the woods during the coldest or windiest times.
- They forage better than domestic animals in the Winter.
- They don’t have babies in the Winter.
- There are probably a few more traits I am overlooking, but this is a first glance.
Now, let’s look a bit closer at these traits…
I think this is probably one of the most important factors we need to consider. I think the solution for this is to start with breeds of cattle that are more adapted to the cold (Highland Cattle come to mind, but there are others). We would also need breeds of cattle that forage well; this can be a learned or inherited trait. We also need breeds of cattle (and lines that have not lost this trait) that historically do well when fed only, or solely, on pasture.
In nature, some animals don’t survive the stress conditions of Winter. This is why some people got so angry at me. I think they expected me to turn a bunch of cattle out into a snow bank and not return until the Spring thaw… any that survived would make it to the next round of selection. Of course this approach would work, and I have thought of ways to humanely implent it. I loved Mark Shepard’s STUN approach: Simple Total Utter Neglect. Mark uses the STUN philosophy with plants, not animals (at least not that I am aware of).
But dealing with animals is different. A true STUN technique would not only be expensive, it would also be inhumane. These animals are under our care. They have lost a lot of their survival instincts, because we bred it out of them as we selected for faster growth or fat marbling or whatever. We need to figure out a way to be humane while still challenging the animals and see which ones perform the best in less than ideal circumstances. We need to choose which animals we use for breeding stock… those that put on the most fat before Winter, those with the least Winter weight loss, those with the fastest regain of weight in the Spring, those that don’t get ill in the Winter conditions, etc.
This process is also not going to give maximum monetary return during the development phase. This will require a longer timeline for a return of investment. It will take the right people to see this process through.
2) Stocking Rate:
We stock our animals much higher than nature does. Can we reduce our numbers before Winter by selling them off or butchering them? Can we increase our pasture quality to support greater stocking rates?
3) Winter Protection:
Deer use the woods/forest for Winter protection. We can put our animals in the forest during the Winter. These areas can handle the animals for longer periods of time better than the pastures in the Winter as well. There are also simpler structures that can be built. Sepp Holzer has built some very interesting roundwood shelters. I know there are other, even simpler designs as well.
Bison huddle together and rotate positions so each member takes a turn on the outside of the herd where it is colder and on the inside where it is much warmer. Can we select for animals that group more in Winter?
4) Winter Forage:
There are multiple ways to solve this. We can select for animals that forage better in the Winter. Some breeds (again, the Highland comes to mind) will dig through the snow to get to the ground, while others will not touch the pasture if there is a mere quarter inch (0.6 cm) of snow accumulation. This can be a breed specific trait or an individual trait or a learned trait.
We can leave many fields to grow taller before the Winter so that animals have more forage available. There are already producers doing this, and they are cutting back significantly on supplemental feed in the Winter. They do lose some total production from each pasture, but they make gains because they are not using all the time and energy to make hay from those fields.
We can actively seed or select for species of plants in our pastures that continue to grow in colder weather or maintain higher nutrient quality later in colder weather or when dried in the field. We can also select or chose plants that are not blown over by the wind (known as lodging).
5) Winter Birthing:
This is a classic, anti-natural cycle practice. This makes sense for a factory farming model that disregards an animal as a living being and disregards farming as part of the greater earth ecosystem, but it has no place in a sustainable agricultural system. If we do not schedule birthing in the Winter, we can avoid a lot of Winter livestock work and energy and supplemental feeding. Thankfully, there are many producers who are allowing for natural reproductive cycles in their animals.
So, with all this said, I would love to get information about and/or from people who are actually doing this in part or in full. Please share!
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