Winter cattle feeding

Livestock specialists and veterinarians say the winter months are a good time to add calories to cattle diets if needed.

Livestock producers will be monitoring the nutritional needs of their animals through the cold days of February. University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Gene Schmitz, based in Pettis County, advises farmers to watch body condition this time of year.

“Keep an eye on body condition of the cattle that they’re feeding,” he said. “I kind of liken it to a gas gauge.”

Producers have some options when cattle are looking a little on the thin side.

“If they start to get a little bit thin, that’s when we need to add some calories,” Schmitz said. “That’ll come from grain or byproduct feeds. Be watching those body condition scores and be ready to respond with some energy supplements as needed.”

Like most years, he said there is a lot of variety in hay quality in his area. Hay testing can help producers know the nutrition of what they’re feeding, and whether they’re short on energy or protein.

“It would seem that maybe the energy is a little lower than it usually is,” Schmitz said of the hay tests he has seen. “Protein seems to be fairly good.”

Grains and byproduct feeds are good additions to diets during the often tough weather this time of year, he said, speaking in early February during a run of cold weather with rain and then snow.

“The kind of weather that we’ve had off and on the last few weeks can take a lot of condition off them,” he said.

Schmitz said the additions to the diet can be a fairly small amount — a couple of pounds a day — or higher, more like 6 to 8 pounds.

“We want to try to keep that supplement as low as we can, but we also need to recognize that those animals need calories and the energy and protein,” he said.

It’s also important to be getting animal nutrition right and keeping cattle well fed as spring calving season gets closer.

Grant Dewell, Extension beef veterinarian at Iowa State University, said this focus on nutrition has benefits for the health of the cow, the development of the calf and the production of colostrum, which is important for newborn calves.

“The first thing is the nutrition of that cow is really important into that last stage of gestation,” he said. “That calf is growing exponentially right now. We don’t want that cow to be losing weight.”

Dewell said this is important to keep cattle doing what they need to do.

“We like cows to calve at least a body condition score of 5, and heifers at 6,” he said. “If they get down to a 4, it’s hard to get them through the winter and they won’t be able to support the calf very well.”

Looking ahead at spring grazing, Schmitz said February and March can be a good time to frost seed some legumes into pastures. It’s particularly a widespread practice with red clover.

“The biggest factor for success is adequate seed-soil contact,” he said.

Producers who have grazed pastures lower should have more success with frost seeding in legumes. But there are options if there is more grass left in pastures.

“If you have a good bit of vegetative layer left, you may have to do something like harrow it,” Schmitz said.

Producers can even pull a harrow behind the seeder, he said.

Adding legumes to pastures has a variety of benefits.

“It improves the quality of the pasture that’s consumed,” Schmitz said. “It can reduce the toxic effects of tall fescue just by diluting the diet, and having something else in the diet of the animal.”

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