By: Travis Meteer, Extension Educator, University of Illinois
While the moderate temperatures have been welcomed, the mud that has accompanied them has not. Farmers are ready for a good hard freeze. After all, many rely on frozen ground to help keep animals out of the mud while they are more confined for winter feeding. Most farmers will tell you, with a smile on their face, that frozen ground is "poor man's concrete." Thanks to a think winter haircoat, cattle prefer cold, dry winter weather in comparison to cold, wet, and rainy.
One of the downfall's to mud is the increase in energy requirement for cattle to navigate the terrain. After all, when you "boot up" and head out to tromp through the mud you are using more energy to travel the same distance through mud too. As you track through a muddy lot you are normally out of breath and tired. Same goes for cattle… they are getting a workout too.
The added energy needed results in less going to weight gain and performance. In 1991, University of Nebraska researchers published common numbers associated with loss of gain due to mud.
Mud depth Loss of Gain
- Declaw deep 7%
- Shin deep 14%
- Hock deep 28%
- Belly deep 35%
Another problem associated with extended muddy conditions is foot rot. The constant moist environment can lead to breakdown of the skin around the hoof. This opens the tissues up to bacteria and can lead to infection. Swelling and lameness are usually the first signs that an animal has foot rot.
A dryer, less saturated area for cattle is the answer to maintain cow performance and avoid health issues. Often times a pasture is considered as the savior. Stockpiled pastures with good drainage can be a big help. However, stocking too many animals in a small pasture area or the trailing of animals across pastures can cause disturbance of the soil. If tracked up, the forage stand will be reduced and opened to weed pressure in the following growing season.
Managing mud is a tough task. Sure we would all love to have concrete feeding pads or hoop barn sturctures to get cattle up out of the mud. While these are options, they are expensive. If you continually are dealing with muddy conditions, they could be worth the investment. Geotextile fabric and rock will be a good investment for temporary or mid-term mitigation of muddy, wet conditions.
For those dealing with short term mud challenges, picking well drained areas of the farm to concentrate feeding is best. Also, de-stocking an area and spreading cattle out on cornstalk or tillable acreage temporarily may help. University of Illinois research conducted at the Dudley Smith research farm shows no negative agronomic effect to grazing cornstalks. Removing cattle from cornstalks in mid-winter to allow the freeze-thaw-freeze period to occur will help reduce compaction. Anyways, this is just another reason to have cows grazing cornstalks. If cows are trampling cornstalks, providing extra forage and supplement may be necessary. Don't over stock these areas or mud and compaction could still be a problem.
Another option is to bed cattle. Straw, cornstalks, soybean stubble, wood chips, etc. help cattle stay up out of the mud. Cattle feeding areas exposed to the outdoors will likely need bedded. Be mindful that this may be a temporary solution as the more organic matter added to the pen can create more mud after time. Deep bed packs work well to keep building mounded areas for cattle to stay on "high ground." Lots of bedding will help, but it will also likely result in more manure hauling.
Managing muddy conditions is hard. Frankly, it sucks. It makes for longer, dirtier chores and seems to slow everything down on the farm. While there is no silver bullet for getting cattle out of the mud, it can be managed to an extent. Here's to hoping we get a good freeze and some tame cold weather… so we can all benefit from "poor man's concrete."