What do cows eat in the winter? part 1 Eating Indoors

One reason why farmers are so busy in the summer is that they are having to grow most of the food that the cows and sheep will eat in the winter when nothing much grows.

Even though it’s the winter, the cows (and the bacteria in their rumens!) like grass.  As any gardener knows, the grass doesn’t grow much in the winter so the cows need to be given grass preserved in some way – either dried (hay) or pickled (silage).  Silage is a lot more palatable because it is moist and it is also more nutritbaling silageious.

silo near piddletrentihide

The key to making good silage is to exclude the air so that the carbohydrates in the grass ferment rather than decompose.

Grass may be ‘ensiled’ by packing it into a silo or by rolling it up into large bales covered with plastic to keep the air out. This favours the growth of acid-making bacteria such as Lactobacillus, and the weak acids they make preserve the grass and its nutrients.  Another species of Lactobacillus plays a similar role in the making of yogurt and cheese.harvesting silage

Another form of silage is made using chopped maize plants and ‘wholecrop’ wheat.  The maize and wheat are harvested using a forage harvester‘.  It gathers the crop in a similar way to a combine and then chops the plants and blows them into a trailer.  The chopped plants are then put into a ‘clamp’ and packed down to exclude air by driving the tractor over them.

silage clamp at TodberIn addition to silage, which is largely composed of fibrous cellulose, farmers give their stock ‘concentrates’ to enable faster growth and milk production by providing extra protein and carbohydrates. Concentrates are comprised of rolled barley (which is home-grown), and soya bean and molasses which are bought in.

The maize/wholecrop silage, rolled barley, soya, and molasses are combined in a ‘mixer wagon’ and taken to the feeding areas.  Judging by the eagerness of the cows, it’s pretty tasty!

Why are the cows put into barns over the winter?

This year's calves....tomorrow's dairy herd

This year’s calves….tomorrow’s dairy herd

The long summer is over, the rains have come, some mornings there is a light frost, and it’s time to bring the cows in.

When I asked a local farmer why the cows are brought in, the first thing he said is, “Because otherwise they get miserable.”

A miserable cow is an unproductive cow.

Although sheep, thanks to their thick woolly coats, seem fairly impervious to the weather, cows  do not like the cold and wet.  They will huddle together, in or by a thicket for shelter if possible.  They lose condition because energy from their food is being spent to keep them warm.  Their milk yield decreases for the same reason or, if they are beef cattle, they do not put on weight so quickly.

At the same time, as any gardener knows, the grass has stopped growing so livestock need to be fed.  The shortened grass is more of a problem for cows than for sheep because of the way they eat.  Sheep have a very mobile upper lip which they use to gather up a bit of grass and then nip it off with their incisors.  Cows rely on using their tongues to grasp a clump of grass and then bite it off. The lack of grass together with the need for more food to keep warm means they need to be fed, and that feed needs to be carted from the yard where it is stored up to the field…the first reason why it is simply easier, less exhausting and time consuming, and more cost effective to feed cows in barns in the yard.

Another reason is that cows can get so miserable and cold that they simply will not come when summoned by the horn of the Land Rover.  Sheep do.

The short days mean that the sun rises after the morning milking has finished, and it sets before the afternoon milking:  this leaves little time for the multiplicity of jobs so saving some time by having the cows in helps.  Some herds are kept in the whole time until March but the local herd is allowed out to play after the morning milking and brought in for the night at the afternoon milking.  Milking is an essential opportunity for the welfare of the individual cows to be checked.  Imagine checking a herd on a dark, wet, and stormy night on a muddy hill.  Imagine trying to help a cow in distress in those conditions!  All much easier for both humans and cows if they are inside.

There is also the welfare of the pasture to consider.  As the grass is not growing and it is very wet, ‘poaching’ can occur. When soil becomes poached it is compacted with no air spaces to nurture the soil organisms and microbes that help maintain a healthy sward.  The grass will  not grow so well, and the turf will become full of hardy weeds.

So for the welfare of the grass, the cows, and the humans working with them the cows are brought in in the winter.