Weighing up the cost of winter feeding

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Outwintering has several potential advantages over housing, but these have to be carefully weighed against possible concerns over animal welfare in unsuitable field conditions, the risk of soil erosion and performance targets.

Start by taking a whole-farm approach to winter feeding and consider:

  • What are the total feed requirements for the stock on the farm?
  • How are these feed requirements met under the current system?
  • What opportunities are offered by forage crops to fill a forage gap?
  • How much feed is needed from forage crops to exploit these opportunities?
  • Does outwintering fit in with your milk/meat contract requirement?

It’s not too late to sow – kale can be planted until mid-august and stubble, turnips, grazing turnips, rape/kale hybrid and forage rape can be sown through to September, weather permitting. These crops do not fit into every system and site selection is crucial.

When weighing up options for the winter also consider labour – outwintering is not a low-labour system. The amount of time involved in visiting outwintering fields to move the electric fence each day and carefully monitor stock is similar to the time taken to feed and bed up a comparable group of animals. The most successful outwintering systems are those where animals are body condition scored or weighed every 2–4 weeks against performance targets, with underperforming animals removed and managed as a separate group or housed. Discuss with your team how this will fit around other tasks on farm.

Generally, dry cows require 2% of their body weight, e.g. 600 kg cow = 12 kg dry matter/day, and growing cattle 2.5 % of their body weight, e.g. 400 kg heifer /steer = 10 kg dry matter/day. For more information, see our recent webinar, Making a success of outwintering cattle.

When considering total feed requirements, remember that outwintered cattle have a higher energy requirement than housed cattle – between 10–20% more energy should be allocated, depending on their body condition, ground conditions and how much shelter is provided. Brassicas should always be fed with ad-lib fibrous forage, such as straw, baled silage or hay, to improve rumen ‘scratch factor’ and provide an alternative source of nutrition.


For more information, see Using brassicas for Better Returns. Research on outwintering replacement dairy heifers can be found on page 21 and 22 of the Dairy Research booklet.