You’ve got some land, being part of RBST has inspired you to keep some cattle so why not head for the spring sales? Before you do, consider what – apart from that land – you need to think about so that your dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare come next winter.

Native breeds are typically hardy, with a fantastic ability to cope with poor conditions, and many are quite capable of wintering outdoors. That said, they still need some natural shelter in the form of a wood, hedge, wall or perhaps even a valley to escape from the wind and be comfortable. As cattle can spend around half the day lying down, so they need access to dry ground to do that.

Many native breeds originate from regions best described as challenging in terms of climate and ground conditions. For example, the Lincoln Red is a hardy breed that adapts easily to regional grazing and climatic conditions, but they are large, heavy animals so their hooves will create mud quickly on wet ground. Unsurprisingly, Shetland cattle have been bred to cope with the often harsh, wet and windy conditions and poor terrain of their native islands and have the added benefit of being small and light, with large feet to spread their weight. And one of our rarest breeds, the Northern Dairy Shorthorn is a one to consider as a breed that really comes into its own in challenging upland areas.

Cost savings

Out wintering has its advantages, most notably you don’t have the cost of a building and if winter grazing is available you will save on feed and bedding. Another benefit of keeping cattle outside is a reduced build-up of infection, especially in mild conditions when there is a greater risk of cattle developing pneumonia when kept indoors.

However hardy the breed you select, though, there are other factors to consider and it may be advisable to house your cattle in the winter. An important factor is the soil condition of the land itself; access to the fields may become difficult and the ground could become badly poached, which will affect your spring grass.

Sufficient forage

If you rely solely on your own grass for your cattle, it is important to be able to move the stock when the fields have been grazed. One method is to subdivide fields so that stock is on a relatively small area for a short period of time, but ensure you leave some grass uneaten to maximise the re-growth potential. Cattle will need sufficient forage to see them through the winter and you may well end up with a well-grazed “sacrificial” paddock where you can supplementary feed with hay or silage. If relying on conserved foggage (grass that has grown all summer and is being eaten off in winter) you will probably need to give cattle access to protein blocks as this old vegetation will not have the same nutrient levels as hay or silage – minerals blocks should always be available.

Not low management

Out-wintering livestock is definitely not a low management system as unpredictable and changeable weather conditions can present real challenges. If anything, it can be much more labour intensive and there should always be another field available in case the one your cattle are in becomes unsuitable.

In some cases, housing will be the most practical option, but the buildings must be fit for purpose. Whether you are improving existing buildings or building new, bear in mind that winter housing can have a lasting and positive impact on animal health and productivity. A new shed can be designed to provide optimum conditions but most will need to adapt existing buildings. The key factor is air flow, with many traditional (and some more modern!) buildings lacking sufficient ventilation – a roofed building open on one or two sides but shielding stock from the prevailing wind is often better than a “cosy” barn.

So, before you head for the sales, assess your land, research the breeds and what they need in terms of input - and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. You can find breed information on the RBST website and, when you have a shortlist to consider, contact the individual breed societies to find out more. Many have field officers who can provide tailored advice, and all will be willing to help.