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Keep Cows Clean
Low-cost laneways tame mud.

Nothing can be more discouraging to both beginning and experienced graziers than having to cope with muddy cows. But the good news is there are many cost-effective ways to keep cows clean, even during soggy spring weather.

While mud is a particular concern for dairy farmers, beef and sheep producers also need to pay attention to proper laneway planning and management says Rob DeClue, conservationist with the Chenango County SWCD and Graze-NY technical specialist. "You can have great forage ready to graze. But if you can't get the animals to the paddocks, it won't do you any good," observes DeClue. "For many graziers, laneways are the weak link in their grazing system, and when the going gets muddy some of them give up."

Many of the potential benefits of grazing -- such as less prep time before milking and fewer foot- and udder problems -- won't be realized if your cows have to waste energy slogging through the mud getting to and from the barn, he adds. "Plus the general public -- which is concerned about animal welfare -- associates clean animals with happy animals," he observes.

DeClue offers these farmer-tested tips:

Start at the barn door. What good are great laneways if your barnyard is a mess? Be sure to channel roof water and divert other runoff away from loafing areas.

Invest up close first. Focus your efforts on high-traffic laneways close to the barnyard. Management -- not money -- might be a better way to tackle wet spots farther out in your grazing system. For example, plan to mechanically harvest paddocks that may be tough to reach in spring without forcing your stock through muddy spots.

Plan ahead. When setting up your grazing system, skirt wet spots when you locate your laneways. Recall places where existing pastures were slow to drain or cropland was often too wet to work, and route laneways around them. Where your stock must cross draws, intermittent streams or hollows that are wet after storms, consider building a stabilized, durable crossing.

Turn the problem into the solution. Where hardpan soils limit drainage, you can often remove the topsoil, bulldoze the subsoil to form a raised lane, then grade and crown it so that surface water flows away from the path.

Beef-up high traffic areas. Lanes close to the barn take a constant beating. They may require more intensive work, says DeClue. He recommends this strategy: First, excavate the top foot or so of soil from the lane. Then line the area with geotextile fabric, fill with coarse aggregate (such as clean bank-run gravel or equivalent), crown above the original grade, top with 1-inch or so of mixed-size crusher dust or lime dust, then roll. The dust acts as a weak cement to help bind the larger aggregates. The cohesive surface helps prevent cows from tracking stones onto concrete pads where they can cause stone bruises.

In a recent posting on the graze-l internet discussion group, Ohio dairyman F.W. Owen described how he avoids stone bruises by substituting the tabs punched out from asphalt shingles, available free for the hauling from a local factory. Other farmers suggested cushiony "chips" made from old tires that are often available locally. But they also cautioned to avoid those that may be contaminated with metal fibers from steel-belted tires and to check with local environmental authorities first.

Many farmers are tempted to skip the geotextile fabric, which keeps the animals from punching the aggregate down into the soil. But in DeClue's experience, the relatively low cost of the material (usually about $.60 to $.90 per running foot for 12.5-foot wide stock, depending on the type used) is worth it, in most cases. "Barring native gravel, a tough hard pan or bedrock near the surface, it's just a matter of time before the aggregate will get swallowed up, and you'll have to haul in more," he explains. As the muck oozes up from below, animals also are more prone to bruise their feet on the embedded stones.

Rotate laneways. Many farmers have minimized mud problems by building double-wide laneways close to the barn, splitting them down the middle, and alternating from side to side as needed. Sometimes it might be necessary to form a temporary lane with portable fence along the inside edge of a paddock or major subdivision to route cows around a wet spot in the permanent laneway.

In the far reaches of your grazing system, DeClue suggests building a single permanent "backbone" fence instead of two laneway fences. Form a lane with temporary fence on one side of the backbone to reach paddocks on that side, then flip the lane to the other side to reach the other paddocks. On remote laneways that don't get much use, the sod may be tough enough to support cows even when it's wet, assuming that they'll only need to use the lane a few times before extended rest.

Watch your water. Locating water tanks in your laneway increases traffic in the lane and can lead to more mud problems. Water distribution systems that feed movable tanks connected to strategically placed hydrants with 50 to 75 feet of above-ground hose allow you rotate and rest areas muddied up by the animals.

Watch your weight. Keep tractors and heavy equipment off of your livestock lanes -- especially when it's wet -- or build a heavier-duty lane designed to take more punishment.

Seek help. Technical assistance and cost-sharing is available for many of these strategies. For more information, contact your local NRCS or SWCD office or call the Graze-NY toll-free hotline: (800) 472-0399.

"Sometimes the money you spend making improvements doesn't look good going out," says Lee Wilson, dairyman and NYPA chair. "But the cows sure look better coming in."

Kill Two Birds With One Stone

Peter Mapstone, who grazes 100 cows and heifers in Manlius, N.Y., found a creative solution to mud problems that keeps his cows' feet dry and their thirst quenched. Mapstone had a neighbor skim the clay off a perennially wet spot at the top of a hill, excavate the underlying shale to form a nearly half-acre pond, and relined it with the clay. After the 12-foot-deep pond filled, Mapstone used 1.5-inch plastic pipe to gravity feed the water to his pastures and barn.

The neighbor also formed a half-mile 1- to 2-foot thick lane by grading and rolling the excavated shale. "The shale is sharp but it's pretty soft. There's a lot of dirt mixed in with it so it's a lot like crusher-run. The roller packed it down hard with no sharp edges sticking up," says Mapstone. "It works great. The cows never sink in more than an inch." Mapstone also used some of the shale in his barnyard, and sold some to help pay for the project.

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Home Grazing Gear Up For Grazing Contents Keep Cows Clean

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