Working in the mud and the cold weather can be tiring. Setting up your crop paddocks carefully will make your work easier and reduce the time you spend out in the crop paddocks.
There are many factors to take into account when deciding which paddocks to graze cows on next winter. Choosing your paddocks carefully is important as it affects the yield of the crop, the cost of establishing and growing the crop and ultimately whether you will have a successful winter.
Consider the following when choosing winter crop paddocks:
How much area will you need to plant?
A winter feed budget will help you to determine the area of crop you will need to plant.
You will need to consider the expected crop yield, cow intake, number of days on crop and supplement feed available for wintering.
Use the Winter crop allocation calculator.
Paddock slope, critical source areas, and waterways
The presence of slope, critical source areas and waterways increases the risk of sediment, E.coli and phosphorus loss to waterways. Careful management of these areas has been shown to significantly reduce losses.
Critical source areas (CSAs) are low lying parts of farms such as gullies and swales (swale – a shallow channel with gently sloping sides) where excess water congregates and flows – transporting soil, E. coli and phosphorus to waterways (including drains).
Strategic grazing and careful management of CSAs was shown to reduce losses of sediment and phosphorus (P) by 80-90% in a trial at Telford from 2012 – 2014.
Buffer zones or grass strips in and around CSAs and next to waterways act as filters by slowing overland flow to trap suspended contaminants. The buffer should ideally be left uncultivated and ungrazed to operate effectively. If this is not possible, graze the buffer last in fine weather. The faster the water is flowing into a buffer zone (ie. The greater the slope of the paddock), the wider the buffer zone will need to be to provide time for effective filtering and infiltration.
Paddocks with many CSAs may be unpractical or unsuitable for wintering cropping as they create too much risk environmentally or require significant time and effort to graze effectively. See Grazing the winter crop.
The history of a paddock can have a significant impact on its potential yield. Each paddock on farm will have a different history. In regard to growing high yielding winter crops, it’s good to know the paddock’s soil fertility and it’s weed and pest history.
Take a soil sample of each crop paddock and have it tested six months prior to your intended sowing date. This will identify any nutrient deficiencies or pH issues within the paddock and allow you enough time to rectify them.
Weeds and pest history is an important factor when deciding which crop is most appropriate for which paddock. For example, sowing a brassica in a paddock with a history of wild turnip may result in crop failure or many days rogueing the paddock by hand. Obtaining accurate and detailed paddock history can be difficult if you are new to a property. Discuss with your local agronomist or advisor the paddock history that you do know. This will help them develop an agronomy plan with the appropriate weeds and pests in mind.
Where possible, plant crops in areas with resilient soil types that are less prone to pugging damage. These soils will also be more resilient to winter grazing and will be able to be regrassed earlier.
Shelter and water
During cold, wet and windy conditions, cows become susceptible to cold stress. Where possible, plant crop in paddocks with good shelter. Alternatively, allow a feed buffer in your budget to account for feeding extra on cold, wet or windy days.
Cows must always have access to fresh water. Water can be provided by a permanent trough or by portable water troughs. Before planting your crop, make sure that your cows will be able to access water whilst grazing it.
Ease of management for staff and cows
Shifting break fences in the mud and the wet can be a tiring task. With good planning you can reduce the effort required to get the job done effectively. Take time to consider:
- options to get to and from the break fence without walking through the mud
- options to get baleage wrap out of the paddock without carrying it far
- a plan for getting cows out of the paddock easily – perhaps a race fence along the side of the paddock
- how you will lay out the portable water trough so that cows don’t tamper with it. Is it easy to shift? Could you attach the portable trough to a trough in the neighbouring paddock?
- what is your plan B for prolonged wet weather or adverse events? Have you got sheltered areas that you could move the cows to, or could you leave a strip of ungrazed crop next to a shelter belt for wet weather?
- will you be bringing in supplement throughout the winter? How will you protect gateways and critical source areas?
Location of paddock relative to dairy shed
Cows will be walking to this paddock each day. Consider the walking distance when choosing an appropriate paddock
It is also worth considering the number of gateways into a paddock. What is your plan B for wet weather? Will you be able to use another gateway or drop the fence wires?
For a paddock plan example see pages 9 and 10 in Wintering on crop and pasture.
Planning cultivation with your contractor
Cultivation of winter crops is an essential part of setting up for a successful winter. Ensuring paddocks are cultivated with agreed management strategies in place will reduce the risk to animals and environment.
Having a detailed cultivation plan for every paddock is an important part of good management practice. Plans should include any critical source areas to avoid, waterways, paddock slope, buffers, and the required width of the buffer.
Ensure your contractor has all the information required before you start. Sharing detailed cultivation plans with your contractor before cultivation begins will put your mind at ease and prevent any future complications.