Watering Cattle with Snow
There are many reasons why cattle producers could consider allowing their cows to graze snow in winter for their water requirements. Lengthening the grazing season, without the need for extensive water system enhancements, is just one of the many compelling reasons. Any time you can get your cows to feed themselves (winter range, swath grazing, crop aftermath, etc.), it reduces winter feeding costs and improves your bottom line. Whatever your reason, it is important to go into it with your eyes wide open, and armed with knowledge.
If snow is abundant and not icy, crusted over or packed into hard drifts, dry, pregnant cows can consume adequate amounts of snow to satisfy their water needs. Watering with snow is not recommended for lactating cows, or cows in poor condition
It is important that you know the body condition score (level of fat reserves) of your cows. It is best to start out the winter with a body condition score above three on a scale of one to five. If some of your cows aren't there yet, they should be separated from the main herd, given water and fed to gain body condition.
To be successful, wind-break shelter and a healthy diet with adequate energy, protein, minerals and vitamins is essential. The heat produced by the normal digestive process is adequate to melt the snow and warm it to body temperature.
Studies done at the University of Alberta and their Kinsella Ranch show that some cows may make the adjustment to snow without outward signs of discomfort, and some may protest. Keep a close eye on your cows; they will tell you when things aren't just right for them. There may be good reason for them feeling discomfort. Perhaps snow conditions have changed and there isn't enough snow, or the snow that is available is not in good condition (i.e. icy, crusted over or wind-blown into hard drifts). There may be many reasons (poor health, nutritional deficiency, body condition, etc.) why some cows do not adjust well. Whatever the cow's reason for protest, it should be investigated to make sure there isn't a problem you are not aware of.
Grazing snow is not instinctive. It is a learned behaviour, and it takes three to four days for cattle to adapt to eating snow. Because of this, it is not a good idea to switch back and forth from snow to water. If you are considering adapting your cows to snow grazing, do so before the severe winter weather arrives.
If you have been watering directly from your dugout prior to starting them on snow, some cows will continue to go to the dugout. Closing off access to the dugout will prevent accidental drowning.
Becoming a low-cost producer is important to prospering in the beef industry. Getting your cows to graze and feed themselves for more months of the year means spending less money feeding your cows... and cleaning corrals. In the right situation, watering with snow may be a strategy that works for you. If you chose to use this approach, you need to ensure that the well being of your animals is kept front and centre in your decision making. At the first sign of undue stress, steps need to be taken to make alternate arrangements. Going into this well-informed and ever-watchful will help ensure it is a good experience for both you and your cows.
For more information, contact:
Agriculture Knowledge Centre
R. G. (Bob) Klemmer, MAgr, PAg