Winter is always tough not only on our goats (and other livestock), but our pocketbooks as well for the extra feed we have to get to supplement feeding. Stored hay may be alright for most situations, but when not stored correctly can lead to sick animals from the mold that can grow on hay.
I've been doing some serious research with local farmers in our region (SW Missouri and SE Colorado) and have decided that this year I am going to give winter grasses and other forms of vegetation a try. For most of us, this is the prime time of the season to get it planted so you'll have an abundant crop come December, January and February. Here are a few of my ideas that I am trying this year:
The first seed to go out this year was a product called "Cool Grow Rye". This type of Rye is an annual, meaning it will grow once this year and not come back next year. Apparently this is a very good growing grass in this region where temperatures get down to as low as 60 below zero (wind chill) for extended periods of time. I have already planted* at least 100 pounds of this seed throughout our pastures and other areas and it has began sprouting (7 days average germination time).
Another seed I am trying is called Austrian Pea. This is a perennial (meaning that it will come back year after year - if not browsed too heavily). Of courses peas are of the legume family so that usually provides for an excellent nutrition source. I just began planting* these seeds so have yet to see any sprouts.
There is also a fescue/wheat mix seed available as an annual that I have planted* and this has begun sprouting as well (average germination 8 - 10 days). It is a 50/50 mix of the two grasses and is in most parts, known as a variety of "winter wheat".
Speaking of winter wheat, quite a few people mentioned that while it is a very good grower in the harsh Missouri winters, it is more finnicky and has to be planted at the right time or the yield will not be as expected. Most people have told me that the first time the weather dips to near freezing is the best time to plant this. But it also will not do well if you do plant it at near freezing temperatures and then the weather suddenly changes to where the temperatures stay in the 60's and 70's. Won't do well if the temps hit the 80's or 90's either as daytime highs. General consensus is to plant this one the night before an expected hard frost.
You'll notice that I made an * asterisk behind the word "planting" or "planted" several times. This is because my planting is not conventional. I did not use a tractor or plow. I simply scatter the seed by hand in the evening or when it is raining. You'd have to understand our terrain to see why plowing is not feasible. I am counting on the rain to wash silt over the seed. So far it has. The only drawback is that our chickens follow me (that is why I prefer evening when they are roosting) and scratch at the seed for food.
Anyway, these are just a few ideas for you to possibly consider for your winter feeding program. Perhaps you have some of your own ideas to contribute. The seed I listed are just a few of the many available for winter crops. Some areas are more conducive to certain grass seeds than others. Might be a good idea to check with your local ag extension agent or better yet, nearby farmers who understand the importance of winter crops and have years of experience.
The price of the seed I purchased:
The Austrian Pea is cheap at .29 per pound.
The Fescue/Wheat runs about .99 per pound. (2001)
As of 2013, the price of most seeds and grasses has at the very least doubled in price, and in many cases quadrupled in price. One particular grassland mix; ryes, fescues, bluegrasses, is running about $3.49 a pound - probably a bit cheaper when bought in bulk.
UPDATE 2007 Since I first wrote this article in 2001, much has changed in the world (ag prices) as well as our own physical location. My first writing encompassed "what I found to be a good plan" for our location in Missouri. Since that time I have gained experience from living a few years in the high elevation of the Rocky Mountains (9,000 feet plus) and now currently in the High Plains at about 4,500 feet. This update will cover my added experiences.
From the mountains to the plains is quite a difference but I can tell you that as far as temperatures and what will actually grow in the winter, there is not much difference at all. The extremely cold temperatures pretty much dictate a lot of vegetation and in most cases, you will pretty much be dealing with bare ground.
The mountains were a unique experience in which we mainly had to rely upon stored hay or bagged alfalfa cubes or Chaff Hay. But these won't really save you a whole lot of money. Oddly enough, there are a few varieties of grasses that seem to thrive in the cold mountain temperatures during winter, but these are quickly gone with a herd of hungry goats. Another plant that appears to thrive is a form of Currants...however these do not appear to be a favorite of goats.
In summing up the high elevation case: winter forage could be cultivated if a person were able to get a good start of the mountain grasses and let them grow for a few seasons before allowing them to be grazed. Many of these grasses withstand the snow and even a few days after a heavy snow begins to melt, will reappear. My best suggestion for feeding in the mountains is to store a large amount of hay BEFORE winter sets in, in September!
At the lower plains altitude, the freezing temps again dictate the natural vegetation but certain varieties of winter wheat and oats will grown. Much of what I have learned in this area is that the best approach is to use silage or locally referred to as "incilage". This is largely comprised of corn, hay, cottonseed hulls, canex and other varieties of feeds grown over the previous spring and summer.
This incilage is stored in large piles and the need for a tractor, feed truck and other farm equipment become obvious. But this type of feeding is very economical and will work. Consider that I moved to my new location and the very first winter was the worst winter the area had in over 40 years! Thankfully I was allowed access to an incilage pile and I am thankful that I did not lose one single animal due to feed. And the bonus with incilage...it largely serves as an "all-class" all-stock in which many other animals will eat; poultry, dogs, cats, etc. The two drawbacks to incilage: fed everyday it can thin the blood. If not stored properly it can get moldy.
Another seed I have recently experimented with is oats. From what I have determined thus far, oats are a pretty good choice and can serve as an all around source of feed for not only goats, but other classes of livestock as well. Oats do not need to be sown into the soil very deep if at all - you are basically relying upon either rain or snow to get the seed established.
While oats cannot withstand a repetitive hard freeze; continued nights of temperatures in the low 20's, they will survive several days in near freezing temperatures, especially if clumped together.
I think my best recommendation for planting oats is to allow a planted area about 1 year to fully grow. This would mean keeping the livestock off the planted area for that entire time, allowing for the oats to reach full maturity, develop seeds (oats), and replenish the growth for the next year. I will have to do some more research on this as a year passes with my test plot, but it makes sense to do it this way with the oats.
I will continue to research the various types of plants that will thrive in various climates during the winter and share my experiences here.
Photographs courtesy of:
- Gary Pfalzbot, GoatWorld (1)
- Carletta Robinette, Rose Lane Farm in Eastern KY (2, 3, 4)