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Winter Considerations for Beef Cattle

Posted by Teresa Steckler -

Alright, so what's next with our weather? This summer was hot and dry and now we are having especially cold weather with that constant breeze that goes right through while feeding. We are not the only ones that feel the cold - cows entering the winter months thin will be affected by cold stress more than cows of moderate to good body condition.

A cow needs the correct level of nutrients to at least maintain her body weight during winter. Heading into the winter months, cows should have a body condition scoring (BCS) of 5 to 6 (where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese). Optimally, this body condition should be maintained throughout winter, regardless of their diet. Increasing the cow's body condition prior to winter can provide a valuable "cushion" for times of increased energy needs. Loss of too much body condition can significantly impact the following: calves may be born weak; colostrum production may be inadequate in amount and/or quality, which can compromise calf survival; and the postpartum interval may be lengthened.

Keeping warm is the largest part of cattle's maintenance requirements in the winter, and cattle will use available nutrients for maintenance before fulfilling any other needs. If adequate nutrition is not provided, cows will pull energy from body fat reserves to keep warm. Thus, cows must be supplied with enough protein and energy to meet their maintenance requirements, as well as additional nutrients to support fetal development and lactation.

Consider the following: the lower critical temperature (LCT) for cows in adequate body condition with a normal, dry winter coat is approximately 32º F. Below 32º F, the amount of energy needed by the cow for maintenance begins to increase. However, if the hair coat is wet, maintenance requirements are at a much higher temperature - 60º F. Thus a cow's nutritional requirement not only increases as the temperature decreases or on windy days, but is impacted even more if she becomes wet due to rain or snow. These numbers can be affected, towards the good, if windbreaks, shelters, or bedding are provided during winter.

Not only will cold weather affecting cattle performance but producers have another thing to consider during winter, mud. It is less clear what effect mud has on a cow's energy requirements but it is estimated that it can increase the maintenance requirement from 7-30%. If cattle have to deal with mud, then their ration should also be improved. Animal welfare considerations need to be considered along with how the public views our operations. If at all possible, move the cattle to a more suitable location.

Thus cattle require more energy (not protein) to make it through the winter months. More energy means additional high-quality forages and grains. It is a myth that grain rations are hotter rations. High-quality forage rations actually provide more heat for livestock. The extreme weather this past spring and summer definitely impacted the quality of forages available for this winter. To ensure that your cattle's nutritional requirements are met, consider having the forage tested to better understand what your forage contains.

Not only do cattle need adequate feed during the winter, but it is vital that they have plenty of water available, whether they are drinking from a fountain-type waterer or a pond. The biggest thing for producers to remember is that livestock need water, or they won't eat. However, the water may still be too cold for some cattle to drink. You may want to consider supplying water that has been warmed slightly.

Closely monitor your cows throughout winter. If some start to lose weight, you can quickly intervene by providing supplemental feed. Frequent monitoring, common sense and practical animal husbandry will bring your cattle through the winter in fine shape.


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