Winter to do list for cattlemen

Jan 08, 2024

By Todd Steen, ProTrition Nutrionist
With winter conditions upon us, meeting our animals’ nutrient requirements is key to the economic success of our beef herds. For spring-calving cows, winter feeding coincides with the last third of gestation and early lactation. During this cycle, these cows require a higher level of nutrition than do dry cows in early gestation.
Everything starts with forage, both quantity and quality. It’s important to test and evaluate your forage to understand the amount of nutrients needed to meet the animal’s requirement. A basic forage analysis will offer information about the protein, fiber, and energy levels present, allowing producers to rank hay from various fields and cuttings according to their relative feeding value. Highest quality hays can then be reserved for lactating cows, heifers, and thin cows. 

Forage that is overmature at cutting, combined with poor harvest and storage conditions, may result in a winter hay supply that provides less than desirable availability of protein and energy. Such deficiencies can 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 will likely be necessary to meet the cow’s needs. 

Factors such as type of forage (grass, legume, etc.) and maturity (as forages grow and mature, forage digestibility declines) affect the quality. On most operations, energy and protein are needed in the largest quantity. Data related to maintaining cattle weight shows positive results of increasing protein to aid the animal’s ability to consume and digest more forage. For the most part, only in times of extremely poor forage quality will protein-only supplements provide gains. Generally, both protein and energy will be necessary, especially with lactating cows.

Many Tennessee operations have experienced drought conditions, which have affected typical hay crop harvesting and resulted in minimal hay supplies. Specific ration balancing will be necessary to ensure adequate fiber is provided, possibly requiring supplemental forage/fiber commodity purchases. Remember, restricting feed to less than 70% of the cow’s requirement can decrease birthweight, causing both the cow and calf to be weak and undernourished. 

Experience tells us that, in most cases, energy will 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 a supplement may 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 are an option. Though not typically intended to supply all the 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.

In preparation for calving, make sure your calving kit is well stocked and readily accessible. Items should include a calf puller, obstetric chains and handles, plastic sleeves, lubricant, antiseptic, naval dip, paper towels, and possibly a heat lamp. Review procedures regarding when and how to provide calving assistance. Lack of progress for more than one hour or an abnormal presentation indicates the need for help. Remember to give special attention to first-calf heifers. First-time mothers can be nervous, so give them a quiet, clean calving lot and observe frequently from a distance, intervening only when necessary.

Early winter is also the time to prepare for the spring breeding season. Cows need to calve once every 365 days to be considered reproductively efficient. This means cows must cycle and conceive no more than around 82 days after calving. Body condition is the best indicator of reproductive status, with the goal being a score of 5 to 6 at breeding. Bulls, too, must be sound and in good condition. Supplement as needed to ensure they enter breeding season in optimal body condition. 

Grass tetany often occurs in late winter and early spring and is associated with low levels of magnesium in new growth of cool-season grasses. The most effective means of preventing grass tetany is providing cattle with supplemental magnesium just prior to, and during, grazing of high-risk forages. Magnesium oxide is an efficient source of magnesium, but by itself is relatively unacceptable to the animal and is therefore typically included as an ingredient in “hi-mag” mineral supplements, blocks, or tubs. 

Contact your local Co-op’s livestock specialist to custom tailor a plan and specific ration balancing for your operation. 

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