Winter Supplements for Beef Cattle

Dec 13, 2021


Winter is here and it’s time to make sure your feeding program has your herd prepared for the upcoming calving season.  The decisions you make now can have a significant impact on the health of newborn calves, the amount of milk produced by their mother, and how soon the cow breeds back after calving.   

Cow-calf operations in the Southeast are based on forages and at this time of year producers generally rely on harvested hay for the majority of the herd’s diet.  This hay must be of adequate quantity and quality to meet the nutrient requirements of brood cows at various stages of production.  For spring-calving herds, winter feeding coincides with the last third of gestation and early lactation.  Cows at these stages of production require a considerably higher level of nutrition than do dry cows in early gestation.  If these nutrient needs are not met, cows tend to calve in poor body condition, give birth to smaller, weaker calves, and take longer to breed back than those that calve in good condition. 

Even though beef cattle are uniquely designed to process large quantities of roughage, there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Forage that is overmature at cutting, combined with poor harvest and storage conditions, can result in a winter hay supply that provides less than desirable amounts of protein and energy.  Such deficiencies also decrease the digestibility of the forage, limiting the amount of hay a cow can eat.  Since both consumption and nutrient content of such forages are low, supplementation may be necessary to meet the cow’s nutrient requirements.  The challenge then becomes knowing which supplement to use and how to use it.

The first step in the decision-making process is determining the nutritive value of the hay supply.  Forage testing is available from various sources and can serve as a basis for making logical decisions concerning supplementation.  A basic forage analysis will offer information about the protein and energy levels present and allow the producer to rank hay from various fields and cuttings according to their relative feeding value.  The highest quality hays can then be reserved for lactating cows, heifers, and thin cows.

Experience tells us that in most cases, energy will likely be the most deficient nutrient, and can be most effectively provided by pellets or cubes formulated specifically as forage supplements. Such products are designed to be high in energy yet low in starch so that they enhance rather than impair forage digestion.  Feeding rates will be determined by the quality of hay being fed, and the supplement should be hand-fed daily to reduce variations in the rumen environment.

If labor and time constraints make daily hand-feeding impractical, self-fed tubs or liquid feeds can be another option.  Though not intended to directly supply energy to the animal, they do stimulate rumen microbes so that more pounds of forage can be digested, resulting in an increase in nutrient intake.  Keep in mind that due to their relatively low consumption rates, tubs and liquid feeds are generally not designed to compensate for large nutrient deficiencies.

With winter feeding costs typically making up a sizeable portion of the annual cost of maintaining a beef cow, cattlemen should always be looking to implement nutritional programs that provide the greatest return on their investment.  Correcting nutrient deficiencies by appropriate supplementation can significantly impact an operation’s bottom line.

Visit with the beef cattle experts at your Co-op to design a winter-feeding program that meets your specific needs. For more content like this, check out the latest issue of the Cooperator.

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