Raising beef cattle during the winter comes with its own obstacles, such as freezing temperatures and blizzards which ultimately lead to a forage shortage. These conditions create additional obstacles requiring greater nutrient intake for all classes of cattle, but spring calving cows have additional nutrient requirements for late gestation and early lactation.
Postpartum requirements are crucial to meet because the cow has a calf on her side, is repairing her reproductive tract, resuming heat cycles, breeding, and if this was her first calf, she is still growing herself. All these processes put significant strain on her body.
In times where forage is not enough to make up for the increased requirements producers are forced to feed cows to ensure they remain productive and wean a healthy calf or risk their herd getting too thin to rebreed. The lactation stage is the part of the production cycle that requires the greatest nutrient intake, and generally occurs before early spring growth of forage.
If environmental conditions are not taken into consideration when planning a supplementation program, it can induce a drop in body weight and body condition score (BCS). Deeming it important to ensure that the proper steps are taken to alleviate seasonal stresses on gestating and lactating cows.
If cows are already thin this could also be used as a time to increase body condition by exceeding requirements. This however should be a last-ditch effort to add condition before lactation. Cows should be fed adequately year-round to remain in good condition but can get behind and need a little extra cover to guarantee a proper body condition (BCS Score of 5-6) entering breeding season.
Anytime there is a discussion on supplementation programs, economics of feeding needs to be a part of the conversation. It is easy to find a feeding program but making sure the economics make sense before purchasing commodities should be taken into consideration to prevent any expensive errors. It is easy to spend a lot to improve reproductive performance, but the cost of feed per cow needs to be calculated to understand if this is a feasible approach to achieving goals.
Seasonal price changes of commodities means that the cheapest feeds in terms of per unit of energy or protein could vary from year to year. So just because a certain feed was cheaper last year or in the fall producers should still compare feeds on a per unit of energy and protein basis and not a per ton basis to ensure the cheapest rate per unit of protein or energy.
Finally, accurate nutrient composition for each commodity is important for formulating cow rations. Otherwise, nutrient requirements for cows can be under- or over-shot and cutting into the operations bottom line. Sampling forages and other roughages will ensure nutrient requirements are met accurately without enduring any unnecessary costs.
Connor Biehler is a Beef Systems Assistant Extension Educator at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Eastern Nebraska Research & Extension Center. Reach him at 402-624-8007, 402-413-8557 or follow his Twitter page @BigRedBeefTalk for more information on Nebraska Beef Extension.