Intensive winter grazing

Intensive winter grazing and wintering on crops

Cattle in mud


Intensive winter grazing and wintering on crops are common practices in some areas of New Zealand, but can be to the detriment of animal health and welfare.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association’s view is that intensive winter grazing practices (eg. of cattle, sheep, and deer on crops/pasture) should only be undertaken when the welfare of animals, people, and the environment is protected. This means meeting the requirements of section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and adhering to sound principles for the sustainable management of natural and physical resources (i.e. land and water).

For intensive winter grazing to meet the requirements of section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act, animals must have access to shelter, be able to express natural behaviours, including lying for rest, sleep and rumination, and have proper and sufficient food and water. The must also be provided treatment for disease and/or injury.

Lying time is an important welfare indicator of cattle. When the ground underfoot is wet and muddy, cows lie down less than they otherwise might, and sometimes not until they are exhausted. If an animal is unable to lie down, rest, and ruminate, they are not expressing natural behaviours.

Animal health and welfare issues that can arise from livestock being kept for a prolonged time in wet and muddy conditions, include:

  • poor hoof health that contributes to claw lesions and lameness
  • inability for proper rest and rumination
  • increased risk of mastitis
  • reduced production
  • exposure from variable access to shelter

There's a lot of research in this area that supports these concerns. See the reference list below.

Lying time and cattle welfare

The welfare of cattle is negatively affected when they don't have a suitable surface on which to lie. Research has shown that cows don't like lying on concrete, yet when presented with a choice between mud or concrete, cows choose concrete.

Dairy cattle reduce lying times by 50-75% when on mud, compared to comfortable, free draining surfaces (normal lying times are 10-12 hours in well-managed lactating, pastured cattle).

This is not simply about the physical health issues these animals may face, but also about how their welfare is affected by their experiences (i.e. their mental state), which is important and given credence in New Zealand through inclusion of the word “sentient” in the Animal Welfare Act.

Towards better grazing practices

The NZVA believes that a joint industry-government approach is the best way forward to support farmers who may need to transition away from winter grazing as it is currently being practiced. We continue to advocate this approach to all levels of government and with farmer industry groups. By working together, a fair and just, 5-year transition away from winter grazing practices that don’t protect animals and environmental welfare, could be achieved.

Changes to winter grazing practices will also assist farmers to more easily comply with planned fresh water regulatory reform. A national-level conversation regarding options and solutions will ensure that unintended negative consequences are not part of new grazing practices.


We acknowledge that some of the references are not specific to the New Zealand practice of intensive winter grazing. However, they do provide evidence that is of direct relevance. Absence of evidence in the New Zealand context is not evidence of absence.

  1. Animal Welfare Act 1999
  2. Barkema, H. W., J. D. Van der Ploeg, Y. H. Schukken, T. J. G. M. Lam, G. Benedictus, and A. Brand. 1999. Management style and its association with bulk milk somatic cell count and incidence rate of clinical mastitis. J. Dairy Sci. 82:1655-63.
  3. Borderas, T. F., B. Pawluczuk, A. M. de Passillé, and J. Rushen. 2004. Claw hardness of dairy cows: Relationship to water content and claw lesions. J. Dairy Sci. 87:2085-93.
  4. Bond, T. E., Wm. N. Garrett, R. L. Givens, and S. R. Morrison. 1970. Comparative effects of mud, wind and rain on beef cattle performance. Proc. Amer. Soc. Agr. Eng. 70:3-9.
  5. Chen, Jennifer M., Stull, Carolyn L., Ledgerwood, David N.,Tucker, & Cassandra B., (2017), Muddy conditions reduce hygiene and lying time in dairy cattle and increase time spent on concrete; Journal of Diary Science, 100(3), 20902103.
  6. C.L. Stull, L.L.McV. Messam, C.A. Collar, N.G. Peterson, A.R. Castillo, B.A. Reed, K.L. Andersen, W.R. VerBoort. 2008. Precipitation and temperature effects on mortality and lactation parameters of dairy cattle in California. J. Dairy Sci., 91, pp. 4579-4591
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  9. Fisher, A. D., M. Stewart, G. A. Verkerk, C. J. Morrow, and L. R. Matthews. 2003. The effects of surface type on lying behaviour and stress responses of dairy cows during periodic weather-induced removal from pasture. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 81:1-11.
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