Guide to Winter Preparation for Cows

Following is a list of top-of-mind priorities that you may want to consider.

This summer is one for the record books. Now, what will winter bring? Following is my list of top-of-mind priorities that you may want to consider.

Use the hay needs calculator

I revised a tool first developed by the University of Tennessee to determine how much hay a beef herd required in response to this summer’s drought. This tool is useful to determine if you have enough forage to survive the winter. Though far from perfect and not a replacement for balancing a ration, it offers a rough idea of where you stand relative to hay inventory and requirements. To download a spreadsheet, go to the Cornell blog on Forage Inventory Tool.

I must note that this tool is not designed for those who feed baleage or silage. If you fall under that category, and if I receive enough requests, I can build a spreadsheet for those feedstuffs.

Hay quality

In this article, I’ve included a chart that offers an idea of different quality forages. Work with your local extension staff to get forage tested. Then allocate feed supply to most economically meet nutrient requirements of your herd. Basically, the older the animal gets, the less quality feed they require. There is little value in feeding your mature herd high-quality forage; likewise, trying to get weaned calves to do more than maintain their weight on low-quality forage is fruitless, though there are exceptions to all recommendations.

Which cows to sell?

In general, culling cows should be kept to a minimum, as the cost of developing a replacement heifer is very high compared with keeping a productive cow in the herd. Culling should focus on traits that:

  1. Return a profit.
  2. Increase longevity in the herd.
  3. Reduce labor.

Several of the following traits fit under more than one category.

Return a profit

  • Open cows or those that do not wean a calf will not live long enough to cover lost income.
  • Producing a calf that is below average weaning weight of the calf crop is last on the list, as replacing poor-producing cows may not increase profitability due to the cost of developing replacement heifers.

Increase longevity in the herd

  • Fertile: weans a calf every 365 days. Cull all open cows or those that don’t wean a calf.
  • Physical unsoundness such as poor feet and legs. While cows do not need to cover the acreage as required in the range states, over time, poor feet and legs can lead to lameness, which reduces their time in the herd. Do not keep heifers out of unsound cows and or those with overgrown hooves. Trimming feet is too expensive to be a common practice in beef herds.

To-Do List for October/November

  • Conduct a pregnancy test, and cull all open cows and cows that did not wean a calf.
  • Cull problem cows and marginal producers.
  • If you have access to corn stalk fields you can reduce feed costs to less than 10 cents/hd/day.
  • Wean calves less than 120 days old before hard winter weather sets in. They will do better on grain plus hay, than if left on their dams.
  • Calves kept over the winter should be fed to gain 1.3 to 1.5 pounds/ day. Full-fed legume/grass hay plus 5 to 6 pounds of grain will support this level of growth.
  • Take forage samples for nutrient analysis. Depending on locality, hay may be in short supply, poor quality and/or expensive. Allocating the best feed to younger, higher producing animals will stretch out the supply. If practical, feed and manage separately:
    1. Weaned heifer calves
    2. First and second calf heifers and old thin cows
    3. The rest of the dry herd
    4. Lactating cows and their calves
    5. Herd sires
  • Contact the local Cornell Cooperative Extension office for information on procedures for obtaining a proper forage sample.

Reduce labor

  • Poor udder/teat structure. A cow’s udder should be well attached, level across the bottom and have small to moderate sized teats that are not excessively long. In general, soundness of the udder deteriorates with age. More breed associations are developing expected progeny differences for udder quality. Newborn calves may have difficulty nursing from large teats or pendulous udders. Calves that don’t nurse within 1 hour of birth can be compromised and have reduced growth rates, carcass quality and, in worst case scenarios, die. Having to assist these calves increases time devoted to the herd. More details can be found at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources page (UNL Beef) “A Guide to Udder and Teat Scoring Beef Cows.”
  • Disposition: especially at calving. (Depending on tolerance, this may bump up to No. 1.) This falls under the category of safety. Every year we hear of someone being severely injured or killed by an overly protective cow.

Feeding cull cows

Again this year, it doesn’t appear that feeding thin cull cows and delaying marketing until after the first of the year makes economic sense. To make this work, you will need relatively high-quality hay/baleage (60 percent to 64 percent total digestible nutrients or TDN) priced at less than $80/ton. If corn stays under $5/bu, then poor quality hay can be supplemented with corn grain. Depending on location, corn that was intended for grain may be available for chopping. Without ears the energy value of this crop is similar to good quality grass (60 percent to 64 percent TDN). Depending on dry matter it will need to be priced around $20 to 30/ton to be an economical feed to put weight on cows. Feeding thin cows can work, but it’s important to design an inexpensive ration that supports a growth rate of at least 1.5 pounds/day to be profitable.