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Guest Opinions

Considerations When Feeding the Cowherd

Written by Steve Paisley

By Steve Paisley, UW Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

As spring calving season approaches, temperatures drop, snow begins to accumulate, and everyone is preparing for winter feeding and the upcoming calving season. Here are a few considerations to take, regardless of when calving begins.

First, providing adequate energy is critical during the winter.  Providing that cows have adequate nutrition and are in adequate condition – a minimum body condition score (BCS) of five, for every one degree drop in wind chill below 20 degrees, the cow’s feed requirements are increased by one percent.  Therefore, if effective wind chill is –10 degrees, mature cows would require 30 percent more additional feed to maintain constant weight during the negative wind chill.  Based on typical hay analysis, this ends up being approximately six to seven pounds of additional hay.

Next, several recent research studies emphasize the importance of proper nutrition during gestation. This includes adequate nutrition during early pregnancy to ensure proper fetal development, as well as late gestation.  

Providing adequate energy, protein and mineral balance during late gestation is critical for getting the cow re-bred in the spring, insuring that calves will get up quickly and nurse, and essential for providing adequate, high-quality colostrum to the calf.  

If cows are still consuming winter range or stalks, consider supplementing to minimize any weight loss during late pregnancy and to have cows in good condition heading into calving.  

When selecting protein supplements, begin by pricing the supplements per pound of protein.  For example, 18 percent crude protein (CP) alfalfa hay, priced at $120 per ton, would provide protein at approximately $0.38 per pound of protein.  A commercial 27 percent CP cube, priced at $280 per ton, would provide protein at approximately $0.57 per pound of protein.  Protein lick tubs, when priced per pound of protein, cost approximately $1.95 per pound of protein.  

When choosing supplements, be sure to price the products based on the cost per lb of supplemental nutrient needed.

When feeding large bales, be sure to take the time to remove the twine and net wrap.  A study published by Carl Dahlen at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in their 2014 beef report indicates that net wrap and plastic twine accumulates in the rumen, even when bales are ground or processed. Necropsy observations suggest that small pieces of net wrap and plastic twine do not break down and actually aggregate together, forming large masses within the rumen. Long-term feeding of net wrap and plastic twine can potentially lead to a large accumulation of twine in the rumen, affecting rumen function and capacity and, ultimately, animal health.  

Consider sorting large groups of cows into smaller units during late gestation to better meet each groups nutrient requirements. Typically, first and second calf heifers are managed seperately to address their additional requirements for growth, as well as to give them a fighting chance to consume the right amount of feed.  

Consider sorting off thin and timid cows and managing them with first and second calf cows to improve their energy status and overall condition.

Also, cattle should be managed with their requirements in mind. Energy requirements for gestating cows increases approximately 25 to 30 percent during late gestation and another 30 to 35 percent from calving through the peak of lactation.  

Adjusting feed amounts delivered will help ensure that cattle maintain condition throughout calving and re-breeding.

Producers shouldn’t downplay the importance of cow body condition.  

It is safe to assume that all cattle producers mentally condition score cattle as they come to the bunk, or as they are checking calves and putting out mineral.  Body condition scoring (BCS) is a quick way to estimate the cow’s energy reserves, both protein and energy.  

Cows in low body condition, especially two- and three-year-old cows, not only lose external fat, they sacrifice a significant amount of muscle, as well. Loss of condition not only impacts reproductive performance but can also have a significant effect on calving difficulty and calf health. 

Thin cows have more calving difficulties and longer labors. Cows that are thin at calving are also less likely to cycle and are at higher risk of not breeding back. Evaluating and managing body condition prior to calving, when there are opportunities to improve condition, is an important management tool to ultimately reduce winter feed requirements and overall calving and rebreeding success.

Simple attention to detail remains an important part of animal husbandry.  Planning ahead and managing for cold weather, monitoring and addressing cow body condition, strategically supplementing to fill nutrient gaps and recognizing the annual changes in cow requirements will make the calving and breeding season a success.