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Separating cows could show nutritional benefit

Cattle feeding in winter

Whether it is cow-calf operations or feedlot setups, livestock specialists say paying attention to cattle’s needs and providing quality feed are keys to success in the winter months.

“If we can provide some high-quality feed, that would be really important,” says Kacie McCarthy, beef cow-calf specialist with the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.

Shawn Deering, a livestock specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, is helping organize a feedlot school at the North Central Missouri College Barton Farm Campus Jan. 13-14 in Trenton. He says when it comes to cattle in feedlots, winter poses challenges.

“Everybody knows when temperatures get cold, energy requirements increase,” Deering says.

For cows, McCarthy says their pregnancy stage is a key consideration.

“When I think about moving into winter, the big thing we need to be thinking about is where our cows are at in stage of gestation and how we can meet requirements while capitalizing on low costs for feed inputs during mid-gestation.” she says. “Body condition score is another thing I like to think about.”

In the 90 days before calving, McCarthy says the goal should be maintaining body condition score, or increasing it if possible.

“It’s really difficult to have a cow gain body condition score after calving,” she says.

McCarthy recommends a body condition score target of 6 for heifers and 5 or 5.5 for mature cows. Producers can sort cattle into groups depending on which cattle need extra support, such as separating heifers and thinner cows.

“Separate those thinner females,” she says. “You can then target their specific feed or requirement needs much easier without them competing with other mature females.”

Assessing what feed resources are available — and what they have for protein and energy — is another key consideration.

“What type of feed do we have available?” McCarthy says. “Understanding what we have can help us make informed supplement decisions.”

Feed testing is another practice McCarthy recommends. She says local Extension livestock specialists have bale corers and can test hay. Producers can also test stored feed for crude protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN) levels.

“We highly encourage that,” she says. “You might think you’re working with 10% protein in your hay, but maybe you’re really only working with 5%.”

Many areas of the Midwest saw dry or wet years in 2021, and that can mean hay quality that is tough to predict.

“In wet years and dry years, we see a lot of variability with the forage,” McCarthy says.

It is also important to make sure animals have adequate protection from the winter weather, she says, including “spots for animals to get some shelter and get out of the elements.”

Deering says cattle do fairly well in the cold, but extreme cold can have effects.

“Cattle, they can tolerate cold pretty well,” he says. “With a heavy coat, and if they’re dry, critical temperature is like 18 degrees. … Every degree under 18, energy requirements go up by a percentage.”

However, winter elements can also add to cattle’s nutritional requirements.

“If we throw wind into the equation, and moisture, then energy requirements are going to go up,” Deering says.

In a feedlot setting, he says producers don’t want to have to alter feed rations too dramatically.

“You don’t want to be adjusting the levels too much, too quickly,” he says.

Also, Deering says water is as crucial as any feed.

“Water is the most important nutrient out there — making sure your waterer is working and cattle can get enough to drink,” he says.

Producers can utilize cornstalk bales for bedding and stack big hay bales for wind breaks to minimize the impacts of the weather.

“Try to keep those pens as good and dry as we can,” Deering says. “And also (add) windbreaks where they can get out of the wind.”

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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