KEEPING SUCKLER cows outdoors for some of the winter months is a good way to reduce housing, machinery and labour costs – and SAC”s demonstration shows it could be successful without detrimental effects to cattle.

But this need not mean keeping suckler cows out all winter, says SAC beef specialist Gavin Hill. “Cows at SAC will be brought in one month before calving in late March to allow the stockman to get them into ideal condition.”

Delayed housing will help reduce machinery and straw use. “Where store calves are sold in early winter due to shortages of accommodation, it could allow them to be housed and finished, allowing flexibility in an uncertain store market.”

When outwintering cattle three important factors should be considered: Adequate shelter; soil type; and good grass run-backs. “Cows without sufficient areas to shelter or dry areas to lie on will have their welfare at risk.” However, too much shelter can stop run-backs drying out, he adds.

With these factors in mind, SAC”s Easter Howgate Farm set up plots to demonstrate various methods of keeping suckler cows outside between November and March, in line with Good Agricultural Environmental Conditions, with co-funding from QHS.

He admits outwintering is not an option on heavy and poor draining soils which poach easily. However, this may be a problem on fewer farms than expected. Although the soils at Easter Howgate are not the worst, heavy rainfalls in mid January have given the demonstration a true test of the suitability under Scottish conditions, he explains.

But key to this is keeping machinery off fields. “Tractors, machinery or bikes have not been in fields, eliminating potential damage. All plots had winter feed put in the fields before cows entering.”

Five outwintering options are being demonstrated using Angus, Limousin cross cows as well as purebred Charolais cows. A sixth group is housed in sheds as a control group.

The first outdoor group involves 10 cows on big bale second cut silage, wrapped and left on their ends. “The aftermath was allowed to grow on to produce forage for deferred grazing,” says Mr Hill.

Cows strip graze and as the fence reaches a new bale it is opened. Minerals are offered ad lib. But the results show this group lost a little condition in the first 11 weeks on this system, showing the importance of forage allocation (see table).

The second plot has 15 cows strip grazing kale. “The area has a grass run-off and cows are supplemented with straw. Again, minerals are freely available.” These cows gained some condition in the first 11 weeks of the demonstration.

Another group was grazing yellow turnips sown late in the season with a grass run-off. “Cows initially only ate the tops and it was about 10 days before they ate the bulbs. But this group was affected by wet weather and they were put into the stubble group as run backs were wet and dirty.” Even so, these cows have lost some condition. The group grazing stubble turnips, however, was more successful with a small gain in condition, although cows remained on grass for four weeks after other groups. Mr Hill attributes this success to sowing stubble turnips as early as possible broadcasting into the standing crop two weeks before whole-crop harvest.

The final plot is a self-feed straw system on cereal stubbles. “Cattle are on stubbles with electric wire restricting access to bales, which has limited poaching.”

The treated straw was baled moist at 72% dry matter. Bales had 20 litres of 40% urea solution poured on top and were wrapped and stacked. They were positioned on woodchips, acting as a shelter and dry feed area for cattle.

Initially these cows kept their condition well, but started losing condition during the first three weeks of January as they neared calving, he says. “Many visitors have felt that there could have been bales of silage stacked with urea treated straw to meet increasing cow demands.”

Although the demonstration is not intended as a scientific trial, cows are being regularly weighed and condition scored. “Together with feed intakes, crop and labour costs, this will allow an economic appraisal of the various systems.”

Assessment of animal welfare and potential environmental concerns are undertaken by SAC specialists on monthly visits, adds Mr Hill. Cow cleanliness, soil conditions and rainfall are also monitored and recorded.

Management of plots and stock will then be modified for the 2006/07 winter, with the best systems transferred to commercial farms to provide local demonstrations.

chrissie.lawrence@rbi.co.uk