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Winter supplementation for your herd

Abigail George for Progressive Cattle Published on 15 January 2021

Supplementation plays a vital role in your cow herd both economically and in animal welfare. It can improve body condition scores (BCS) of your cows, improve calving and enhance the utilization of forage resources. The most important factor to the utilization of supplements is forage testing.

In a webinar hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, extension specialists Tyron Wickersham of Texas A&M University, Eric Bailey of the University of Missouri and Mary Drewnoski of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln discussed the importance of supplementing hay or other forages to provide for your herd’s nutritional needs.

According to Wickersham, the reason to supplement is to sustain bodyweight or BCS. Many producers only think about feeding their cows higher-quality feeds to gain bodyweight, but quality of feed must be measured on the nutritional value. Producers are able to use less-quality feed and instead, add in supplements. Forage testing shows what is in the feed, and adding supplements can fill in nutritional gaps. Supplementing just because it is something you are supposed to do is not the best utilization of resources. Not knowing what supplements your herd needs is a waste of time and money. The value of supplements is different to every herd. Producers should spend time figuring out what value supplements can have for them and what they can afford. What are your performance goals for your herd and how will you get there?

Getting a calf out of your cow is the most important factor when it comes to raising cattle. Supplementation can help by moving the calving window or making it shorter and improving weaning weight in calves. Protein and energy requirements for a cow change throughout gestation. To best feed supplements, producers must understand what a cow needs and when she needs it. They also need to understand the forages cows are eating and how much they are eating.

Producers are able to use supplements to expand forages to the  end of the year. Forage testing will allow you to understand the nutritional value of your forages, as they change each year, each harvest and on each field. If testing is unavailable, producers are able to use historical data to help with correct supplementation.

Drewnoski focuses on using corn residue, which is low quality but readily available in the Midwest, for a winter forage. Corn residue is downed corn, husks, leaves and stems. Looking at total digestible nutrient (TDN) requirements, husks are relative to moderate-quality hay, while leaves are comparable to low-quality hay. The protein requirements are much lower. Though there is a lot of residue, only roughly 40% of it will be consumed and have nutritional value for a cow. Drewnoski says cattle being grazed on corn residue at the recommended rate do not need supplements, however, providing protein supplements can help improve their BCS, if that is the goal.

Using fescues for feeding is Bailey’s focus. When feeding fescues, it is important to test for nutritional value. Each season, field and batch can be different. It can potentially save you money if you are buying unnecessary supplements. Nutrition requirements for a cow change based on the time of year, as well as period of gestation. It is essential to know how much nutritional value needs to be supplemented based on the producer’s specific scenario.

Another factor to consider when calculating nutritional value of pastures is plant height. If the substance is too tall, cows will not be able to consume all of it before becoming too full to get the nutrients they need. If the substance is too short, cows will not be able to consume it. Both will make cows lack nutritients and require supplementation. Managing grazing will help manage the nutritional value of your feed.

Bailey also points out that timing of harvesting hay is important. Hay quality is variable and can depend on when it is harvested and how it is stored.

Feed costs for a beef operation are one of the most significant costs. To limit some of the costs, make the cows do as much of the work as possible for you. When it comes to supplementation, forage testing is essential. Supplementation can help producers reach their performance goals for their herd.  end mark

Abigail George is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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