Beef in Winter Options and Preparation

Winter in the Northeast is bound to be cold, with snow or freezing rain, no matter where your farm is located. But some areas experience substantially more precipitation, snowfall and colder temperatures than others.

No matter where or how cattle are kept in the winter, they need to be able to eat enough to produce the energy needed to stay warm and healthy and they need to be kept dry. It’s not the cold or even the snow cover that negatively impacts healthy cows: it’s the moisture, mud and wind. Although cattle with adequate body condition can handle cold weather, getting wet, experiencing a wind chill or standing in mud are detrimental to even the hardiest cows. But these factors can be handled successfully in many beef management systems.

Some farmers are going to keep cattle outside all winter, 24/7, either in areas with natural shelters such as trees, or with built shelters from the wind and rain. Others bring animals into the barn during severe storms only, whereas some farmers will opt to keep the herd confined in the barnyard for the duration of the winter season. Feedlot producers may need to adjust bedding management for the colder months and establish wind breaks around the lot to keep the cattle comfortable and dry.

Farmer Louis Tommaso, of L.L. Pittenger Farm in Andover, New Jersey, has managed his herd of approximately 70 beef cows, a mix of Hereford, Simmental and Piedmontese genetics, outdoors year-round, in the northwestern corner of New Jersey, not far from the southern New York and eastern Pennsylvania borders for the past 15 years. The pastures include forested areas, where trees act as natural windbreaks and provide shelter from precipitation. Several areas also have lean-to structures available during inclement weather.

“They prefer the woods over the shelter,” and will choose the woods when given the option, Tommaso said of his herd.

Winter pasture

Some pastured herds graze rotationally on stockpiled forages even when snow is on the ground, receiving supplemental feed as needed. Others are primarily fed while on pasture, with feeding areas adjusted to prevent any heavy use areas.

Tommaso pastures his animals in a rotational system using 20 acres of pasture land. He grows hay on 20 acres of cropland and corn silage on another 20 acres, to supplement the herd. The animals are primarily grass-fed, but do receive small amounts of supplemental corn silage, free-choice, along with fed hay.

Tommaso provides two feeders in his pastures, one for corn silage and one for hay. In the fall, the amount of supplemental feed is increased as the animals rely less on pasture grazing and to help condition the animals for the winter season. Tommaso does not stockpile forage and supplements the herd with his stored feeds to provide for their energy needs while out on pasture during the cold winter months.

Certain pasture forages, such as sudangrass, become toxic after a frost event and need to be avoided for several weeks afterward to prevent prussic acid poisoning, Melanie Barkley, Penn State Extension livestock educator, cautioned. Producers pasturing herds outside of the primary growing season need to be careful to monitor for frost events, she said.

It’s becoming more common for beef producers to actively practice winter grazing by stockpiling forages on some pastures. Healthy cattle are able to graze through almost a foot of snow, although it is not recommended for calves or pregnant cows. One challenge for producers is not knowing exactly how much forage is available in the snow-covered pasture; ice coverage can also be a concern, according to Jenn Colby, pasture program coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont.

Colby said that making stored feed available while the herd is on stockpiled pasture will allow them to balance their nutritional needs and prevent concerns. Winter grazing of any type requires active, daily management, she said, to appropriately manage changing conditions.

Other producers might want to consider keeping cattle off of pastures in the winter, Ashley McFarland, Cornell Cooperative Extension regional livestock specialist, said. McFarland recommended that cattle be overwintered in a barnyard or a sacrifice lot, since there typically is not enough feed left to graze on New England area pastures and grazing what is there can impact next season’s growth.

Feed and water needs

“Animals will eat more in the colder temperatures, in order to provide extra calories for heat energy. Cattle require more feed in the winter months than they do out in the warmer months,” McFarland said. “They will also require more feed outside than if they were in a barn.”

No matter what is being fed to meet the nutritional needs and maintain body condition – pasture, hay, corn silage or other rations – or how the animals are housed, the amount of feed needed will be more than what they normally would consume in milder conditions.

“The forage consumed needs to be adequate in protein and energy to meet nutritional needs of the cattle. Most average to high quality forages will do this unless cattle need to improve body condition scores and the forages available are not high enough quality to do this,” Barkley said. “Cattle will need additional feed resources during colder temperatures and during cold rains. A cold rain is when the temperatures are in the 30s and low 40s. The additional feeds are needed to account for the energy to keep the animals warm.”

When feeding on pasture, hay can be bale grazed in different parts of the pasture to prevent damage and spread out the manure. Hay not eaten is then trampled into the pasture, improving soils. Feeders can be moved around paddocks to avoid the development of heavy use areas, too. Tommaso is careful to provide sufficient spacing for all herds to maneuver around the feeders and avoids low-lying areas when mud or ice is a concern.

Water is as important as feed and during the winter animals still need adequate amounts of water. If they do not drink enough water, they will limit their feed intake and not be able to meet their energy needs. Water that is frozen, or overly cold, will not be consumed as readily as warmer water.

The watering system at L.L. Pittenger Farm is an automatic flow system that feeds into several 150-gallon tubs, equipped with heaters. But Tommaso can’t put in underground piping, so the automatic flow system will freeze in the cold winter and is not used once the temperature drops. In the winter, he hauls water out to the pastures twice each day, filling the heated waterers manually.

“Producers utilize a variety of methods to keep water from freezing,” Barkley said. “Constantly flowing water systems, such as spring development or streams and water systems that vector heat from the ground are both options, as well as heating elements placed in watering systems to keep water temperatures just above freezing.”

Colby stated that although cows can eat snow, it takes more energy for them to do so than just drinking water. The animals have to expend their energy to bring the snow up to body temperature. A centralized watering system, protected from freezing, is recommended.

Winter herd health

“Beef producers should pay attention to body condition on their cows and first-calf heifers,” Barkley recommended. “Both should be body condition scored, with the goal of having cows reach a body condition score of five to seven and heifers of six to seven, by calving time. Cows and heifers with lower body condition scores at calving tend to take longer to rebreed and thus would calve later the following year.”

Adequately maintaining body condition during the winter begins with fall feeding and culling any questionable animals from the herd. Overwintering animals that have the energy reserves needed for cold weather survival is always the best option.

“In prepping them for the wintertime, it’s critical to get good body condition on them,” Tommaso said, noting that while he doesn’t formally use body condition scoring, he doesn’t want to see any ribs or hip bones and is “looking for a nice layer of fat going into the winter.”

His culling decisions combine body condition and the availability of his feed supply going into the winter months. Other prep means ensuring the animals are parasite-free before winter.

“Doing a hard cull before winter will allow the winter months to go much smoother for the farmer,” McFarland said, recommending consideration of body condition scoring, udder issues, feet issues and overall health issues.

Nutritional deficiencies and cold stress can contribute to winter lice, McFarland said, which can spread rapidly through the herd, requiring treatment. Pneumonia is another cold weather concern. Mud can get caked into hooves and cause hoof rot.

“Producers should also consult with their veterinarian for parasite control as well as vaccination schedules,” Barkley said. Observe cattle daily for signs of illness and “watch for any cattle that stand away from the herd or have their ears hanging down. They will often appear listless, also.”

Winter calving

Even the experts have different opinions on winter calving. Depending on the region, it may or may not be recognized. Tommaso calves in the winter, with calving occurring any time from January through September in his herd. Part of that is due to natural service breeding, as using a bull provides less control over conception timing than artificial insemination, he said. Pregnant cows are kept with the general population, which is sufficiently supplemented to meet their pregnancy needs.

“Particularly in the wintertime, when we go out each day to feed, as the cows gather at the two feeders, we’ll observe the herd closely,” he said, looking for signs of calving and if possible, getting the cow into a shelter to give birth. But calves are often born on pasture and he has not lost any in the past three winter seasons. Unless there are excessive amounts of snow or a rain or freezing rain, mom and calf typically do very well with pasture birthing.

“Calving inside is recommended if you are insisting on having calves born in the winter months. Winter calving is not recommended, nor is it a common practice, in the Northeast,” McFarland said. “Calving during the cold months is very hard on calves due to the unpredictable weather. Calves born into mud will tend to get chilled or stuck into it. This is a setback for the calf and it will possibly need to be treated for an illness.”

Barkley, however, does see a lot of winter calving being done successfully in Pennsylvania, primarily in late winter into early spring, from March to May.

“When calving in the winter, cows should have access to an area that blocks the wind. This could be a natural windbreak or something manmade. This can be as simple as round bales, a wooden wall, or something more substantial such as a barn,” Barkley said. “Cattle are much healthier calving outside as compared to calving inside a barn because of issues related to pneumonia or scours. Calves can thrive in most conditions as long as they receive adequate amounts of milk,” although mud is a concern due to its chilling effect.

There is no one right answer to winter calving decisions, or to winter beef herd management practices. Each producer has to make decisions based upon their own specific land base, infrastructure and overall management philosophy.

Keeping the herd healthy all winter long begins before the cold weather arrives. Having enough feed stocks to provide the additional energy needed during cold weather; offering some protection from wind and moisture; beginning the winter with healthy stock in good body condition; and assessing the herd daily – all of these practices help to ensure that beef herds and their farmers can thrive through the cold winter months.