The Old Farmer's Almanac has released their forecast for this winter. To quote: "mild, with soakers," is how Kentucky and Indiana are labeled. I don't put a lot of weight on these forecasts, but they often line up with other forecasts and occasionally are completely correct. If this forecast holds true, we all need to prepare for a winter similar to last year. With the effects of the late season drought already taking a toll on stored feed supply now is the time to start preparing.
So, what can you do to prepare for the possibility of another long, wet muddy winter?
All livestock producers need a contingency plan for both summer and winter. First, look at your animal numbers. It has been said that ten percent of the herd should probably grow some wheels every year. You're probably holding back some replacement heifers to maintain numbers anyway. As the late Gerald Fry would wisely say, "If you cull the ten percent you should be culling, the herd that's left is just that much better." A few open fat cows going down the road reduces winter feed needs and lighter cows will also do slightly less damage to the ground under wet conditions.
Taking forage samples and developing a winter feeding program will pay off in the long run. Forage testing is the most practical guaranteed way to determine the nutrient content of hay. Forage nutritional results can be used to assess quality and to determine amount and type of supplementation needed for the desired level of animal production. Matching hay to different classes of livestock based on nutritional content of the forage and the requirements of the animal can lead to a more efficient forage-livestock program.
Just as there is a need for a dry lot in the summer during a drought to protect the pasture, a "winterized" dry lot is needed, especially in wet winters. Winter feeding areas are an absolute must for at least part of the season. Why? Because mud costs money. Livestock burn more energy in mud just by moving around. Increased energy needs increase your feed and feed costs. Feeding efficiently becomes more challenging and losses of hay and feed go up.
For this part of your contingency plan, I highly recommend a rock pad or Heavy Use Area Protection (HUAP) site. A HUAP site can be a huge blessing under wet conditions. After last winter, I decided we need a whole lot more of them around our farm!
Hay rings and hay feed wagons work much better on these rock pads. Without HUAP sites, and under wet conditions, the ground quickly becomes a deep mud soup around them and moving them becomes increasingly challenging. Without a pad, it is probably better to not use rings, but then waste goes up extravagantly.
Fence-line feeders surrounded with rock pads are an efficient way to feed all year round. They are usually designed with one side of the slanted feeding panel area open, so you can back in bales without needing to get in with the cows. You can almost feed hay in your Sunday best. You and the tractor stay away from the cows, no gate battling, and if your hay storage is nearby, life is good.
You may qualify for financial assistance to install a HUAP site through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist for more information. With or without cost-share, winter feeding pads are a good investment and are pretty simple to build. Locate and build them away from water bodies and where you can have easy access and good drainage and you'll be ready for whatever winter brings.
For more information contact the Pulaski County Extension office. Information gathered form "feed-lot Magazine" Victor Shelton, NRCS State Agronomist/Grazing Specialist and UK publication AGR 62.