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The pros and cons of winter grazing vs feeding under roof
By Doug Schmitz
Iowa Correspondent

SPRING HILL, Tenn. – As U.S. cattle producers face winter, they also face choosing between two feeding options that will best work for their operations: grazing or feeding under roof.
“The main thing to be concerned with is feeding the lowest cost ration, while meeting the production goals of the operation, whether that be a feed-to-gain ratio, paired with a rate of gain, getting females bred, or maintaining body condition,” said Andrew P. Griffith, University of Tennessee professor of agricultural and resource economics. “In most cases, grazing cattle will have lower costs than bringing harvested feeds to an animal in a feeding barn.”
He said, however, there are instances when feed resources can be more efficiently utilized in a barn than in a pasture situation.
“I think the main thing to consider for most people when comparing grazing versus feeding under a roof is the labor differences in the systems,” he said. “Feeding under a roof has many definitions, ranging from confinement in the barn, to feeding under roof with grazing at the same time. Thus, the quantity of labor needed for each of these systems can differ.”
At the same time, he said, producers need to consider waste management.
“With any type of confined feeding, labor and equipment will be necessary to manage manure, including removing it, and spreading it,” he said. “Grazing is a more natural environment for cattle, but a covered feeding facility can be advantageous in harsh winter conditions, or extremely wet conditions.
“Another benefit to feeding under a roof is the ease of checking livestock. They tend to congregate at the time of feeding, and animals can be evaluated for sickness, lameness, or other issues.”
Russ Euken, Iowa State University’s Iowa Beef Center extension livestock program specialist, said not many operations utilize grazing to feed cows in the winter.
“Most would deliver some kind of stored feed, along with maybe grazing cornstalks, or potentially grazing some stockpiled grass,” he said. “When they are feeding cows during the winter, some operations would have some kind of shelter, but many would be feeding outside without a roof or shelter.”
He said some operations have built confinement facilities where they confine and feed cows for most or all the year.
“That is the comparison that many people make when they talk about grazing versus confinement,” he said. “Does it pay to bring cattle indoors over the winter? Cattle that are in good body condition, provided adequate nutrition, and have a dry, bedded area, and some sort of windbreak, are pretty well suited to being outdoors versus under roof, even in cold weather.”
He said, “Those days when it is damp and cold, or it gets fairly muddy, can cause issues, and there would be some animal comfort benefits to being under roof, as long as it is well-ventilated, and there is enough space.
“Would it pay to build a new building for this? Maybe if you could use it for other purposes. Trying to pay for the building just for winter cows would be difficult to do. Those that build confinement facilities for cows year around do so for various reasons, not always a lower cost.”
He said, “Again, most cattle are able to perform and maintain themselves fairly well outside, and in favorable weather, there might be some benefit to having more space, etc.”
But Griffith said there can be a lot of efficiencies gained when cattle are not having to use a large portion of the calories they have consumed to simply stay warm.
“However, health issues are always a leading concern when cattle are confined,” he said.” A well-designed barn that promotes air flow can reduce some of the health concerns related to feeding under roof, but it will not solve all of the problems.
“It is imperative cattle have plenty of space such that they are not crowded in a feeding barn. It is also important to make sure the floor is appropriate to reduce hoof and lameness problems.”
When asked what main factors producers should consider with either grazing or feeding under roof, Euken said, “Some tradeoffs might be better observation and control of cattle under roof, and less time to do that, versus more time spent on bedding, hauling manure, or maybe even daily feeding.”
Regarding what impact on rate of gain and other health concerns there would be bringing cattle indoors, Griffith said it depends on the operation, and the available resources.
“There are situations in which having cattle indoors makes more sense than grazing,” he said. “For instance, a person may have limited access to land, which means a confinement barn may be the only way of holding enough animals to make it worth the time of producing cattle.
“A barn may be necessary to avoid destroying saturated pastures with a lot of hoof traffic,” he added. “All in all, some operations are better off from a financial standpoint with cattle under roof, while others would be worse off financially.”