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Management

Producers are encouraged to plan ahead to increase winter preparedness

With many areas of the United States still experiencing drought conditions, stockmen will need to pay particular attention to their cattle to prepare for the upcoming winter months. 

“This year may still be tough for many ranchers,” according to Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist. “If the cattle are in poorer condition going into winter, they may not be able to handle the cold as well.” 

The best time to improve the body condition score of a spring calving cow is after weaning and prior to winter. 

“The cow’s nutrient requirements will be extremely low,” Berger explained. “She doesn’t have a calf nursing her, and the calf inside her is very small and taking very little in terms of nutrients. I would encourage ranchers, even if feed is expensive, to try and get their cows back into condition after weaning.” 

With nutrient requirements lower, cows need less for maintenance and should be able to regain body condition quickly.

Ideally, Berger said a cow should be in at least a body condition score five going into winter. 

“A cow that has the right body condition will stay warmer and be able to manage herself better than one in a body condition score four that is already thin,” he explained. 

“If the cows are still in good condition prior to calving, producers can use the extra fat on the cow’s back later on as a feed resource,” he said, “but if the cow is in poor condition, the nutrient requirements will be more during the winter months than if they had gained some condition prior to winter.” 

Rebuilding condition

Building back body condition will hinge on what feed resources are available. 

“Many ranchers will be giving their best feed resources to their calves – if they still have them,” Berger explained. “It may make some sense to use the best resources to put that body condition back on the cow.” 

Meadow regrowth, crop residue like cornstalks or wheat stubble and even some cake can help cows gain weight and improve their body condition. 

“Producers may also want to keep in mind that forage quality is going to be in the lower quality range, so they may need to supplement it with an energy source,” he explained. “I would encourage producers to shop around and see what low cost energy source can be found that will allow those cows to gain some weight. Put a pencil to what can be purchased most economically.”

What about the bull?

Producers also need to provide their bulls with extra care prior to winter weather. 

Young bulls that are 18 months to two-year-olds will need some attention. 

“Often times, ranchers finish with the breeding season and kick these bulls out into the back pasture,” he explained. “Those bulls aren’t going to regain much condition without some supplemental feed.” 

Berger said the bulls should be fed some supplement in the pasture or put in a corral and fed. They can also be put back with the cows after pregnancy checking so all the cattle needing condition can be fed as one group. 

Like cows, Berger recommended mid-five for an ideal body condition score in bulls. 

“They are still growing, developing and trying to mature. They need good nutrition to help them reach their mature size,” he said. 

Body condition in bulls is evaluated similar to cows, except they may not be as quick to deposit fat. 

“Don’t let them get overly fat,” Berger cautioned. “Going into winter a five and a half to six would be adequate. The extra condition can always be used in the spring, but if the winter is tough, it can help them manage the stress of that,” he said. 

Protection in harsh storms

Producers need to think about providing adequate protection for their cows in the event of bad weather. 

“For every degree the air temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the cow’s nutrient requirements will increase significantly,” Berger explained. “It is important to have an area where the cows can get out of the wind, so they can use those nutrient requirements to maintain themselves.”

Cold, wet conditions can be detrimental to cattle. If the cows are wet, combined with cold winds and low temperatures, they have a harder time maintaining their thermal body temperature, which causes them to use more nutrients to maintain themselves. 

Natural protection, like trees, creek bottoms and topography, can make a significant difference when the air temperature is low and the wind is cold. 

For producers without natural protection, Berger said many types of windbreak are available, from panels with windscreen on them, to portable systems that can be folded out and easily moved. Windbreak in a horseshoe or semi-circle design can also help combat winds. 

One easy method of building windbreak is using bales that are stacked around corrals and can be fed later in the spring. Berger warned this type of windbreak may need some type of snow fence built behind it to help catch heavier snows before it comes over the bale windbreak and piles up. 

If a major snowstorm is predicted, Berger urged producers to try and gauge how serious the storm will be and take precautions ahead of time. 

“If the storm will be bad, have the cows full, especially if feed will be hard to get to,” he said. 

Cattle should also be moved to an area with protection. 

“If they are in good condition going into winter, they will have some cover on their back and be able to withstand bad weather,” he added.

Forage availability

With many rangelands still suffering some affects from the drought, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist Aaron Berger said fall grass may be brittle and will need to be carefully managed to prevent trampling. 

“Producers may need to do some cross-fencing or find a way to limit the areas the cattle have access to prevent trampling,” he explained. “It will be an important tool this year to get as much as possible out of the feed resources that are available.”

Berger also encouraged producers to estimate forage growth and cow grazing days per acre. 

“Producers need to try and use all the forage they have available,” he said. 

“Some areas are not grazed because of topography or water. Producers need to find a way to attract the cattle to those areas with supplements like cake or tubs,” he added. 

With low forage quality, developing a good mineral program will also be extremely important. Producers should evaluate what feedstuffs they have available, determine their feed quality and test it before developing a mineral program to fill any deficiencies. 

“If producers are feeding cake, they can have the mineral added to it, which may be one of the most cost-effective ways to manage it,” he said. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..