Feeding cattle during the winter requires careful management. Without lush grass to provide protein and energy, producers need alternative sources to meet the cow’s dietary needs.
And if an operation has spring- and fall-calving herds, the herds require two different diets.
Spring-calving cows have low nutrient requirements during the winter, which Jeff and Deb Thummel take advantage of. Their cow/calf operation is located in Union and Ringgold counties in Iowa and Worth and Nodaway counties in Missouri.
While a majority of their herd calves in the fall, the Thummels run about 60 head of spring-calving females.
“Our spring calvers don’t start until April 1,” Deb Thummel said. And as soon as calves are weaned, the cows start feeding on corn stalks until spring grass starts growing.
Their fall-calving herd gets a much different approach. The Thummels wean fall-born calves at the beginning of February.
“The bulls are pulled and we can treat the cows pretty badly,” Thummel said. “They have to forage for themselves on pasture or corn stalks and limited hay. They definitely aren’t completely satisfied, but they are maintained.”
Summer and fall grazing often helps the cows add extra body condition in time for calving.
“Most times there’s enough fall growth they can have at it and we don’t have to feed much hay then,” Thummel said.
Energy for fall calving
Once calves are on the ground, the cows get special treatment. Just before breeding in November, Thummel starts feeding 30 pounds of corn silage per head and good grass hay. Cows stay on this diet until breeding season ends and calves are weaned.
Dealing with a colder climate, the Thummels put a lot of emphasis on energy for their fall-calving cows.
“Because the fall-calving cows will be suckling a calf in the coldest days of the year, you have to keep their nutritional energy up,” Thummel said. “That’s why we early wean so we can cut back on that.”
The combined approach works well.
“We’re consistently more fertile with our fall-calving cows than the spring herd,” she said.
But she and Jeff always watch body condition to make sure cows aren’t falling behind. If cows stay in good condition through breeding season, it’s easier to maintain them through the winter.
Three hundred miles to the south, Aurora, Mo., cattleman Glen Cope has a slightly different set of resources. His family runs around 500 head of cows, 90 percent of which are fall calvers.
“We feel like there’s a lot of advantages in southern Missouri with fescue for fall-calving cows,” he said.
His family’s operation relies on stockpiled grass and alfalfa hay to supplement during the winter.
“If you had a decent summer and early fall at all, that [fall-calving] cow is in decent flesh. A fall-calving cow is usually cycling good,” he said.
This helps maintain body condition through breeding season and into winter.
“Getting that cow bred in November and December is pretty critical,” Cope said.
Cope monitors the body condition of his cows and relies on protein tubs and good hay to fill in the gaps.
“In 2014, we planted 150 acres of alfalfa,” he said. “Our cows get a lot of alfalfa hay along with grass hay. That gives us some good flexibility, and we feel that has narrowed our calving season.”
And while the fall herd gets high-quality forage, Cope’s spring-calving cows survive on stockpiled fescue and grass hay.
“Grass hay will get them by pretty easy. It doesn’t even have to be the best quality, as long as they have stockpiled fescue,” he said.
He admits fescue isn’t a perfect solution.
“Producers have a love-hate relationship with fescue. It puts on a lot of tonnage and is tough during dry conditions, but stockpiled fescue can cause endophyte problems if the fescue is toxic,” he said.
But using a good mineral program can help alleviate the issue, along with supplementing good hay and rotating pastures.