Outwintering crops

Published 27 March 14

Out-wintering cuts costs and aids dairy farming sustainability

Out-wintering systems developed from tried and trusted methods used in New Zealand and Ireland are being used increasingly in the UK and could be a key facet of a more sustainable dairy farming industry going forward, writes Helen Mathieu from British Seed Houses.

Helen estimates systems for dairy replacements or dry cows can offer cost savings in the region of £100 per head over a six month period, when compared with a conventional housing approach.

Out-wintering is not a new idea and there are long-established methods using crops like kale, fodder beet and stubble turnips. These have been used for decades but fresh thinking and access to new hybrid brassica varieties that are faster growing and have greater winter hardiness are opening up opportunities for more and more dairy farmers.

Many of the benefits of out-wintering relate to the environment, as well as the efficiency of the production system, which is a significant bonus in modern farming systems.

The principal point with out-wintering is that you move the animals to the feed – which is grazed where it grows – as opposed to cutting and carting the feed to housed livestock. This means that you are saving at least three separate sessions of heavy fuel usage – first when harvesting/ensiling the feed; secondly during daily feed-out through the winter and thirdly when cleaning out sheds and spreading muck.

Use of non-renewable fuels and the corresponding emissions can be significantly higher for a housed livestock system than it is for out-wintering, so the carbon footprint can be reduced for these systems.

Crops used in systems for out-wintering cattle include, for example, kale, turnips and hybrid brassicas. In all cases it is important to provide fibre in situ, with wrapped round bales the most practical solution.

Another key point with fodder crops grown for out-wintering is their role in providing a break crop in a grass reseeding programme.

Brassica fodder crops are great break crops and are a very flexible addition to the farm’s rotation. We are seeing them sown as early as June, perhaps following a first cut of silage and as late as August or September, following wholecrop cereals –either direct drilled or sown into a conventionally cultivated seedbed.

Many growers typically follow their overwintered brassica crop with a grass reseed or in some cases, forage maize. The fact is that you can grow and utilise a brassica fodder crop in part of the year and maximise your forage acres by either harvesting and/or establishing another crop in the remaining months.

There may also be animal health advantages to out-wintering, with some evidence of a reduction in incidences of respiratory disease, such pneumonia, amongst out-wintered youngstock.  

Key points in successful out-wintering: 

  • Field selection: Choose an appropriate field within your rotation, such as an old grass ley in need of reseeding. Later sown crops fit in the rotation following wholecrop cereal harvest. A suitable site should be free draining and offer some shelter, with no risk of run-off. Remember, brassicas should only be grown one year in five to avoid the risk of club root
  • Grow the right crop to match your requirements: Plan well ahead and soil test in good time. Brassicas require a soil temperature of 10oC and rising and will perform better in a clean, fine and firm seed bed; they respond well to fertiliser nutrients
  • Plan the grazing strategy for the field in advance: ie strip or block grazing and always place bales of fibre (silage, hay or straw) in the field in advance when weather conditions permit 
  • Ensure animals are healthy with a good condition score at the outset: Consider mineral boluses and worming beforehand. Always introduce stock gradually and restrict access with daily movement of an electric fence to avoid excessive poaching
  • Supplement with silage, straw or haylage as a fibre source (20% of the diet)
  • Ensure easy access to water and grass or stubble run-back

Choose a crop to suit your system

Outwintering Crops


For more information British Seed Houses publication on Forage Brassicas 



Dr Debbie McConnell, DairyCo R&D Manager adds;

Planning is key to successful out-wintering. Choosing the correct site now will help mitigate potential environmental issues next winter, such as soil erosion and damage or nutrient loss. Deciding now which fields to use and looking at both access and infrastructure is important.

Last year as part of the DairyCo Out-wintering Research Programme, part of our Soils, Forage and Grassland Research Partnership, we investigated heifer performance on commercial farms. Animals were out-wintered on fodder beet, kale or deferred grazing. The research showed that there was no significant effect of forage type on animal performance (liveweights, body condition score, etc.) over this period and the key to success was regular monitoring of animal weights and adjusting management according. Hence selecting fields which allow easy access for moving of stock to handling facilities for measuring is worth considering.

This year and next we are looking at how the economics of these systems compare with housed animals and what effects out-wintering can have on animal performance in the first lactation.

For more information click here.