Feeding Through The Freeze: Winter Nutrition Tips

Published on Wed, 09/27/2023 - 3:43pm

Feeding Through The Freeze: Winter Nutrition Tips.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Ranch winters can be challenging, even during an uneventful year. One of the most crucial, and stressful, elements to navigating this season is ensuring adequate feeding, feed supplies and body condition are maintained.

Animals with favorable body condition scores (BCS) heading into winter  are positioned  to not only perform well during the harsh weather, but also during  calving, postpartum recovery and rebreeding.

When grazing opportunities are limited or nearly exhausted, cattle will rely heavily on forages and concentrates provided to them. In the best situations, what is provided should slightly exceed  energy requirements so they can support growing fetuses and generate body heat in the cold.

Good feed management will ensure you don’t run low on supplies when they are needed most. However, good management requires advanced planning and facilities sufficient to store and move feed.

Basic ingredients
The phrase, “you are what you eat” is true for cows too. What goes into cattle can make all the difference, especially when it comes to maintaining the requirements needed to get through a cold winter.

But remember, winter diets should also reflect the staples cattle are used to consuming year round. And feed changes should be made gradually to avoid issues associated with rapid diet changes or excessive concentrate feeding,  like laminitis and bloat.

A good forage base should be the foundation, and the rest of the ration can be built around it. Your ration may change from year to year based on  the cost (and availability) of grains, byproducts and forages.

Even if this is the only time of year you need to, it can be a wise decision to pay for a nutritionist’s consultation to ensure that your formulation is not only sufficient, but also realistic and cost effective.

It is worth the investment in lab testing to ensure the quality of your forage and ingredients - whether  purchased or grown  yourself - is sufficient. Doing this well in advance of the winter months can ensure you have ample time to replace anything that might not be up to par.

Understanding the forage nutritional value is  important because it helps you identify the nutrients that need to be supplemented to meet the animal’s nutritional needs. Conducting a forage analysis provides valuable nutritional information and leads to proper measurement of the supplements according to an Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities Extension bulletin, Supplementation Strategies for Cow Herds During the Winter. This also provides a better strategy to economically feed supplements.

By definition, a supplement is defined as anything that is provided in addition to what is being consumed. Grain can even be considered a supplement as it provides nutrients that a forage may not offer or have (depending on the quality).

Proper supplementing can be a powerful way to maintain or increase body weight without adding feed volume or more expensive ingredients.

Maintaining the cow
Keeping cows and heifers in good condition year round will allow them to continue to perform well through winter whether they are recovering from fall caving or ramping up for spring.

Feeding and maintaining a healthy animal  is far more effective playing catch-up,  especially during cold, wet winters and inconsistent temps.

Keep in mind all of the elements that contribute to the cow’s overall energy requirements. Some of the times that require the most energy are prepartum and calving, lactation and  rebreeding. Spring calving requirements can be a bit difficult to calculate, because BCS can decrease over the winter while energy requirements are increasing. It may be necessary to have a separate “close up diet” with additional supplementation for cows and heifers that are approaching calving.

The right ration
Though  energy requirements increase in the winter,  providing more energy-dense feed may not be the answer. The most effective approach is to look  at the energy requirements and adjust ingredients to provide the appropriate diet.

Emily Wilmes, with the University of Minnesota Extension, provides this rule of thumb in her article Best practices for feeding cattle in the winter: “The energy requirement of beef cattle increases about 3% for each degree that the wind chill is below 59 degrees F, and increases even further in wet conditions.”

Wilmes suggests good quality hay as one of the best ways to keep a cow bulked up during the winter.

For cattle, she recommends a high quality hay as one of the best sources of energy throughout the winter months. Adequate hay and forage can also help the animal keep warm because  the rumen generates heat during the digestion process.

A practical approach is to store high quality hay for winter and use low quality hay in times of lower energy requirements.

“It’s estimated that winter feed makes up more than half of the annual cost of keeping a beef cow,” writes Wilmes.

When evaluating how to feed for winter, price is and should be a consideration. A poor investment can really burn you in the winter months. This is a situation where you might remember the adage: penny-wise, pound-foolish.