Windrowed forage cuts down on waste, saves money on feed

Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho Extension forage specialist, says you can expect 5% to 25% weathering loss in standing grasses (and more for alfalfa) over winter, and snow may mash down standing forage. It’s harder for cows to dig down and eat it than for them to find windrows under snow.

Windrow grazing is most efficient if you ration them by moving electric fence across the field. “A two- to three-day allocation of forage is a good compromise of labor and harvest efficiency, making cows clean up one section before letting them into the next.”

He says the best way to move temporary fence if snow covers the windrows is to put it crosswise, perpendicular to windrows, rather than going the same direction. “If snow is deep or crusted, cows know where the windrows are from eating them in the previous strip. The snow is broken.”

Key Points

Windrow/swath grazing enables cows to harvest their own fall and winter feed.

Windrow grazing is most efficient if moving electric f)ence to ration grasses.

Only a few producers in the Northwest use this method of grazing.


Windrow grazing varies in effectiveness according to climate. “If it’s warm and wet, there’s more spoilage, especially if cows have access to the whole field (trampling and disturbing all the windrows) rather than strip grazing. Windrow grazing works best in arid climates, where it’s cold rather than humid,” says Shewmaker.

“Windrow grazing works with alfalfa, but leaves may be lost in weathering. Any single species won’t preserve as well as mixed species, such as grass and legume. The windrow formed stays more erect and won’t mat down as much.” This aids initial curing and retains more nutrients with less spoilage.

“Leave at least 3-inch stubble when cutting to keep the windrow up off the ground for better drying, and less spoilage on the bottom from ground moisture,” he says.

Only a few producers in the Northwest windrow graze. “There may be more trying it this year, because we were late in hay harvest with the slow spring. In many areas, the growing season was shortened by two weeks. If there’s not enough late crop to economically cut for hay, windrowing would be a way to preserve it for fall grazing.”

Annual vs. perennial forages

“With annuals you don’t have to worry whether the plants are trampled or damaged, since a new crop will be planted next year,” says Shewmaker.

Most producers plant annuals mid-June to mid-July to grow adequate yield and maintain most of the quality when cut.

“It should be cut at whatever stage of maturity fits the planned use for the feed and class of animals that will graze it. The earlier cut, the more total nutrients in the plant. All forage plants decline in quality as they mature.”

Alberta research showed cereal forage in windrows loses 6% quality between September and November, and 14% between September and April. “Oat/pea and barley/pea mixes produced the best combination of yield and forage quality, but peas can mold.

If you’re grazing dry cows, you can supplement with protein (such as a little alfalfa hay) if needed and allow the crop to grow longer for better yield — without letting it get so mature that it’s like straw,” says Shewmaker.

“Tall fescue preserves well after being cut; it has a stiff waxy leaf that sheds water.” It won’t weather as badly as orchardgrass.

The terms swath grazing and windrow grazing are used interchangeably. In earlier times a swath was the hay laid down by a hand scythe or mechanical mower — to be later raked into a windrow.

When machines that cut hay were modernized to put hay into a windrow as it was being cut, many of them were called swathers. This is probably how the reference to swath grazing came into being. Whether called swath grazing or windrow grazing may depend on what part of the country a person lives in.

Smith Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.

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ROOTING FOR FOOD: Cattle root through deep snow for windrowed forage.

This article published in the December, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.