Preparing Cattle For Winter

According to John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef specialist, there are some things producers can do now to help get their cattle through the next several cold months and prepare for the demands of winter.
calendar icon 20 December 2009
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The thing producers need to first look at and determine is the body conditioning score (BCS) of their cattle, advises Mr Paterson. While scoring can be a bit subjective, Mr Paterson nailed it down with a simple description.

“Each body score is worth about 80 pounds on the animal. That means a body condition score of four is going to be about 160 pounds lighter than a cow with a score of six,” he said.

Mr Paterson likes to see bred cows going into the winter with a BCS of five or better.

“If she's a four, we need to get going right now and put some weight on her,” he said. “If they go into the winter thin, they will come out of the winter thin; and it will take them longer to breed back next spring.”

Mr Paterson said it is cheaper to fatten up the animals now rather than trying to do that just before calving season.

“It's a weather issue. That cold in January just sucks the energy out of these cows,” he said. “They are taking all the protein and energy in that hay just to keep warm. Right now, if you give them supplemental protein in addition to the good grass that's still out there, they will build some fat and improve their body condition.”

He likes to see cattle encouraged to graze the high-energy and moderate protein grasses nature provides for them. At this time of year, Mr Paterson recommends only providing supplemental feeds two or three times a week, rather than daily. That forces the cattle to clean up what is left in the pasture.

“For example, move those self-feed tubs into the grassy areas. Encourage cows to go into those areas,” he said. “Move the tubs around so the cattle are not hanging out by the water tank or the windmill all the time. Make the cattle get out there and eat the good grasses that are left.”

He is often asked by producers - which is better, feeding two pounds of 20 per cent protein or feeding one pound of 40 per cent protein? Though the dynamics of the answer can be complicated, Mr Paterson said he'd really like to see them feed the one pound amount so that the cows are forced to eat more grass and regain that body condition they lost when they had a calf at their side.

As winter storms loom closer, Mr Paterson noted that producers in the western side of the state move their cattle in closer to the headquarters because they are near the mountains, where snow is deeper. Having them closer helps during a long winter of hay feeding.

On the plains side of the state, where there is less snow, the cattle are allowed more range in the winter.

Whatever the winter feeding situation, Mr Paterson said producers should test the forages the animals will be receiving. “If we're going to buy supplemental feeds, let's have a reason to do so. Know what the protein and energy content is of your hay,” he said.

If a producer knows what he is feeding in terms of protein, nutrients and energy values, he can tailor his whole feeding programmememe to fit his cattle. That may save him a lot of money and could improve reproductive efficiency.

“Get those forages analysed. You can really put some nice programmes together if you get your forages analysed,” he said.

Producers can mix and match feeds, combining the high protein of alfalfa hay with the higher energy strengths of wheat straw or adding cake or liquid feeds according to specific needs, not tradition, he explained.

Another way to prepare those cattle for winter is to make sure they have their shots and are properly dewormed. During summer pasture conditions, cattle pick up internal parasites which can make effective weight gain in the winter more difficult. Parasites can also suppress the immune system and make cattle more susceptible to diseases and sickness during the long, cold months. John Lawrence, Iowa State University Extension livestock economist and director of the Iowa Beef Center, worked on a study in 2005 that showed the affect parasite control has on a cattle herd year round.

“We found that parasite control has a tremendous impact on cattle herds,” he said.

They compared what would happen if three different pharmaceutical influences - de-worming, fly control and growth promotant implants - were removed. They discovered that de-worming had more economic influence on the herd when translated into areas such as weight gain, live calf births, conception and calf weaning rates than the others. In 2005 the expected impact on eliminating de-wormers would cost producers $165.47 per head at the herd level. Removing all three technologies was expected to affect the break-even selling price by nearly 47 percent or $225 per head. With the figures recalculated for 2008 that dollar break-even difference grew to $274 per head.

“The number is big and that surprised a lot of people, including us,” said Mr Lawrence.

“It is definitely important that you process these cows correctly,” Mr Paterson said. “Make sure they have their shots and are de-wormed going into winter.”

When taken together, all these simple elements will increase the likelihood of efficiency in cattle during the winter. It will help them and the unborn calves gain proper nutrition and maintain body warmth and energy during the winter. They will be in better shape going into calving season and beyond.

December 2009

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