Cattle_winter pasture conditions

Muddy and frozen pastures and feedlots have taken a toll on many Illinois cattle producers this year. Jeff Beasley is one of them.

“I would say it’s the worst we’ve seen in a long time,” said Beasley, who raises and feeds cattle near Creal Springs, Illinois, in Williamson County. “My dad is 78, and he says he doesn’t recall a winter this bad in a long, long time.”

An especially wet period of heavy rains and melting snow have turned many livestock farms into muddy messes. That can have an effect on cattle performance and health.

Deep mud — and, conversely, hard ground — pose challenges for livestock, potentially reducing growth and creating an economic drag on producers.

“No doubt, in terms of performance, it’s no secret that cattle that are standing in mud or walking on really hard, frozen ground, aren’t going to be as excited about moving around,” said University of Illinois beef educator Travis Meteer. “They will have some performance drag. ... It’s like walking through quicksand. It’s a lot more work.

“Just like it’s harder for us to move through 6 or 7 inches of mud, it takes some maintenance requirements.”

Beasley agrees.

“No question, it has had an impact,” he said. “I’ve had a few cattle come in here kind of weak and thin when they were bought, and they had trouble holding up in these conditions, so I’ve lost a few.”

Some studies indicate that extreme muddy conditions can add 10 percent to the cost of weight gain in cattle, he said.

“I’ve not put any numbers to it, but some of my cattle have not performed as well from a gain and cost of gain standpoint,” Beasley said. “Some cattle had to be in confined pens, and it’s been harder on them. Other cattle that were turned out on pastures aren’t as crowded and weren’t affected as much.”

Teresa Steckler, a University of Illinois beef educator who works out of the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, said cow-calf operations can suffer.

“If they have cows nursing with one big pasture, the forage is probably down and hasn’t had much chance for re-growth,” she said. “That could potentially pose problems as far as performance. They may not produce as much milk.”

The poor conditions have forced Beasley to reduce numbers on his farm. He’s taking in a third to a half fewer feeder calves than he did the previous year.

“I’ve got pen space, but I didn’t feel it was a good idea to bring new cattle in here,” he said. “I’ve had people want to send me cattle to feed for them, but we’ve held off. That’s affected our overall inventory.”

Meteer pointed out that general performance is cutting into profits, largely because cattle are expending more energy in the mud.

“Cattle are going to have reduced average daily gain. They’re still eating the same amount of grain, but they’re gaining less weight,” he said. “That directly impacts our cost of gain. Now it costs more for those calves to put a pound of gain on because they’re not gaining as efficiently.

“It’s an increase in maintenance requirements. It’s the same as the doctor tells you to go on a treadmill for exercise. When those calves are walking around in mud it’s more exercise, more strain. When they’re burning more calories walking around the pen they’re not putting those calories into weight gain.”

He added that the conditions can also affect health.

“My concerns are more with our cow-calf producers who are calving,” he said. “Those young calves may not have the strength and immunity built up in them quite yet. Those are our higher-risk groups.

“Cows in continually muddy conditions with more dirt, mud and manure we’re exposing those calves to more pathogens and bacteria due to that.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.