Considerations for Feeding the Beef Cow Herd this Winter

Bill Halfman
UW Extension Ag Agent
Monroe County

Tight feed supplies coupled with high prices will make over wintering the beef cow herd more costly than usual. Adding to these initial problems is the fact that many cows may be entering into the winter in less than ideal body condition due to the drought in many parts of the Midwest. As a result, we will need to be adding weight to them before they calve next spring to reduce risks of longer term problems.

Especially vulnerable are the first calf heifers that are still growing themselves, in addition to raising a calf.  This year, more than ever, it may make economic sense to separate the first calf heifers from the rest of the herd to be able to better meet their nutritional needs.

When looking at costs of overwintering the cows, keep in mind the long term implications and costs if sufficient rations for the cows are not provided over the winter.  These long term costs include lower calf vigor and health next spring, and decreased reproduction performance during at least the next breeding cycle.  Cattle that calve at body condition score 4 or lower are prone to these negative effects.  Research has shown that ideally we would like to see cows calving at body scores of 6 or 7.  For a cow that is a body condition score 4 to get to 7 it will likely need to gain around 300 pounds.  This gain is easiest to put on in the early winter.

This year balancing rations is more important than ever due to some of the feedstuffs we may need to use to over winter the cows.  If we look at typical cornstalks, which are commonly used, they may do a find job of maintaining beef cows body condition during the early winter.  However, if we need to add condition to the cows, the corn stalks will need some help in the form of energy and protein in order to improve body condition score of the cows to where we want them to be at calving time.  There are a number of feeds including co-products and by-products that could be used to supplement the corn stalks to provide the cows what they need to add body conditions score.

Another feedstuff that may see increased use this winter is CRP hay, due to the fact that many farms had to feed their good hay to the cows this summer when their pastures quit growing.  Research at Iowa State University conducted in 1992 and 1993, when CRP hay was used heavily to overwinter beef cows, showed that the relative feed value (RFV) of CRP hay was around 75. Keep in mind the full bloom alfalfa has an RFV of around 100.  One of my fellow co-workers describes hay similar to CRP hay, as “about as nutritious as eating cardboard”.

Based on past experience, ISU found that CRP type hay, when fed by itself, resulted in under-nourished beef cows that lost body condition and weight. Additionally, the amount of feed wastage will be high because the CRP hay palatability is very poor. To properly use this type of feed in winter rations generally requires the producer to do two things: 1.plan on using this type forage early in the winter season when beef cow nutrient requirements are at their lowest, and 2. tub grind and mix the CRP hay with other higher energy and protein feeds to meet beef cow nutrient requirements.

Testing the forages on hand is the first step that needs to be taken to determine the quality of our feedstuffs.  Once that is known, the next steps of identifying needs and potential supplemental feeds to best economically meet those needs, can be determined. Work with your County Ag Agent or nutritionist to help look at your options.

Additional Tools and Fact Sheets that can help beef producers manage their winter feeder are:
University of Minnesota Beef Cow Ration Balancer 2010
Hay Analysis Guide for Beef Cattle: Determining Winter Feed Needs

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