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6 to-dos for winter herd management

Twig Marston for Progressive Cattle Published on 11 November 2020

Winter nutrition and management has many focal points, but there are a few management decisions all cattle producers should place on their to-do lists.

Most spring-calving herds look at winter as a time to prepare cow herds for calving, early milk production and the breeding season. Fall-calving cows are in full lactation and breeding in addition to maintaining bodyweight under times of environmental stress. In both production scenarios, the gap between fall and green grass is a time to implement management and nutritional plans that will reduce costs, increase efficiency and create more profits.

Here are some steps you should consider:

1. Monitor body condition. Body condition scores are an open book to the nutritional plane cattle have been on. It is simple to learn and can be done daily. The shape of the top and spine appearance, brisket, ribs and flanks are areas to evaluate. Thin cows have late breed backs, lower-quality colostrum and lighter-weight calves. Fat cows have low fertility, greater calving difficulty, less milk production and lower efficiency. All cows need not be in the same body condition to be productive, but in general, moderate body condition is an excellent indication that cattle have matched their environments and management plans.

2. Don’t guess, forage test. Forage testing has great value and can be a top investment for cattle operations. Knowing a few basic facts about feedstuffs makes money in several different ways. Since water content is the most variable nutrient in feed, when formulating and mixing feed, knowing the moisture component can significantly influence the amount and proportion used in the feed formula. Nutritional profiles can be used to determine the value of feed and assist in making diets that are both least cost and best performing. With the wide variety and availability of feedstuffs today, knowing the nutritional makeup can predict the difference between a good deal and a bomb. Do not make the mistake of filling cows with feedstuffs that do not meet daily requirements. Low- and no-performance cattle seldom make money. Allied industry members and extension service faculty offer both feed tests and technical support to fully utilize the resulting information.

3. Pregnancy check the herd. Identifying open cows increases the option to capitalize on their management and financial rewards. Open females can be culled from the herd, creating a reduction in feed costs. Or, they can be grouped and managed to increase their salvage value as late-bred females or placed into a different calving group. With pregnancy information, management options can be evaluated and implemented that can be used to create profit.

4. Minimize feed waste. Numerous trials have shown the value of feeding equipment that reduces waste and yet does not limit convenience. Losses over 20% can be the result of poor forage management and feed handling. Examples are the design of round-bale hay feeders, covering silage piles, timely baling and raking to reduce field losses, and the list can go on and on. The amount of feed delivered also needs to be considered. I once had an astute cattleman tell me, “Feed cows a day’s worth of hay, and they are eating in the dining room; feed them two days’ worth of hay, and they are eating in the living room, but feed them three days’ worth of hay, and they will be eating in the bathroom.”

5. Cold stress is costly; try to provide weather protection, when possible. For each degree below a cow’s comfort temperature, total digestible nutrient (TDN) energy requirements increase 1%. Wind, moisture and lack of sunshine add to the insult of cold temperatures. When temperatures are near freezing, the wind is blowing at 10 to 15 miles per hour and rain has soaked cattle to the bone, energy requirements will be increased by over 30%. There are only two ways to meet those additional requirements. Cattle either need to eat more pounds of feed and/or they must consume a diet with greater energy density.

6. Control both internal and external parasites. Parasites are freeloaders that rob profit from cattle. Lice are a major external parasite that should be controlled at the beginning of and throughout the winter months. Scratching and hair loss are sure signs of lice infestation. Internal parasites decrease digestion and gut health. Application methods and a variety of products give producers choices that are effective. Lost income to parasite infestation has been estimated annually in the millions of dollars. Timely applications of parasite controls should be a priority item in every management plan.

Cattle operations may have individual identities and needs, but there are common management decisions that can increase profits. Information collected and analyzed on a cow herd can be used to refine management decisions. Eliminating problems eliminates profit robbers. Properly adjusting to environmental conditions improves herd performance and prioritizes resources to improve efficiency.  end mark

Twig Marston
  • Twig Marston

  • Field Beef Nutritionist
  • Hubbard Feeds
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