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Get cows and heifers ready for winter now

No matter your feeding system, have your breeding 
animals in good condition before the snow flies

Bart Lardner.

If cows and heifers aren’t there already, there is a short window to get them into a proper body condition for winter.

If you have skinny or poor condition cows heading into winter, that December to March period is probably one of the toughest and most expensive times to try to get them back into condition, say researchers and ranchers alike. And if they are on the poorer side heading into calving, then calving difficulties can increase resulting in weaker and low vigour calves. After that, the costs and management mount trying to get those mothers back into condition for the approaching breeding season. This is particularly an issue for first- and second-calf heifers, that themselves are still growing, never mind trying to meet the requirements of a new nursing calf. Cattle are in a catch-up position and it’s very difficult to get caught up.

While there has been plenty of research done over the years, and there are still many questions to be answered, the take-home message is to have cows and heifers in a good body condition score (BCS) heading into winter. If you use the actual scoring system — the five-point Canadian BCS system recommends cattle be in the 2.5 to 3 score range, and on the nine-point American BCS it’s about five. There are several good websites that demonstrate proper techniques for condition scoring.

And even if you don’t do the hands-on, palpated type of body condition scoring, just having a good look at cattle this fall on pasture will provide a good visual assessment of whether some remedial feeding action is needed. If you are relying on a visual scoring, however, make sure a heavy hair coat on animals isn’t providing misinformation.

Low condition, high cost

The economic impact of heading into winter, calving and next year’s breeding season with cattle in low to poor condition is considerable. Some U.S. research comparing cattle with the mid-range (recommended) body condition score versus a low body condition score, showed the mid-range cattle had 10 per cent more live calves, calf weaning weights the next fall were 26 per cent higher, and the pregnancy rate among mid-condition cows came in at 92 per cent versus 79 per cent for lower condition females.

Research at the University of Alberta’s Ellerslie research station from a few years ago showed it costs more to feed low condition cattle over winter. To move a condition score from two to a three requires about 200 pounds of gain for a 1,450-pound cow, 240 pounds of gain for the same change in an 1,800-pound cow or about 160 pounds of gain for a 1,200-pound cow. On a cost basis, at the time of that study, feeding that lower condition animal to gain 200 pounds cost 42 to 85 cents more per head per day than a good condition cow. Again, that research found it took 20 days longer for the thin cows to come into estrus at breeding time and conception rates were 20 per cent lower. If cows drop even one condition score (go from a BCS of 3 to 2) over winter, the calf crop is reduced by 30 to 35 per cent the following year. Each loss carries a price tag.

So how do you manage against that?

The fall is the most economical time to get cattle into proper condition heading into winter, says Hushton Block, a researcher with Agriculture and AgriFood Canada in Lacombe, Alta. Block, a specialist in beef cattle nutrition and growth, says at weaning the cow’s nutrient requirement is about at the lowest point in its production cycle. The calf is weaned and the bred cow (expected to calve in March) is several months away from calving.

Hushton Block. photo: Supplied

“Even low- to moderate-quality pasture or hay will pretty well maintain an animal at this time of year,” says Block. “So providing some good-quality hay, or some screenings or a bit of grain will start to put weight on animals.” The actual supplement used should be based on a feed analyses for deficiencies in the base diet and least-cost nutrient formulation.

Block’s approach is to put weight on cattle — improve body condition score — when it is easiest and at the least cost. “Winter is the most expensive feeding period of the year,” says Block. “So it’s not the time to be trying to put weight on cattle. Summer and fall pasture is the least expensive. Feed costs are relatively low and it is the easiest time for the cow to put on weight.”

He suggests there “might be some economic advantage” for producers to aim at bringing cows and heifers into good, perhaps even slightly over condition, heading into winter and then if feed supplies and quality are limited over winter, the animal can afford to lose a bit of condition. It’s a fine line. “The cow still needs to be in good or proper condition for calving and through to breeding,” he says. “But if she comes into winter in top condition there might be some room for her to lose just a bit of condition and still be able to deliver a calf and rebreed.” It may help to trim over winter feeding costs.

Properly managed, he says the cow’s condition can dip a bit over the winter feeding period, and then when lower-cost spring, summer and fall pasture comes along, put the condition back on.

“The overall objective is have cows in a good body condition score so they can calve, rebreed and stay in the herd,” says Block.

Extended grazing needs to be managed

But maintaining cows and heifers at a body condition score of about 2.5 to 3 over winter — so they can calve and later recover to rebreed — doesn’t mean producers have to avoid extended grazing systems, says Bart Lardner, senior research scientist at the Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC) in Saskatchewan.

“Sure the risk is there that cattle can lose condition on swath, bale grazing and other winter feeding systems,” he says. “But it is also quite manageable. You have to apply the proper management, but there is no reason these systems can’t work, maintain cattle in good body condition and, in fact, we have seen situations where they actually gain weight while winter grazing.”

Lardner says the first step, whether it be with barley, oats, triticale swaths, for example, bale grazing or corn grazing, is to have a feed test analysis completed before cattle start grazing, so producers know if there are any limiting quality factors.

“If you don’t trust the quality of that feed stuff, then you could be in a deficient position,” says Lardner. “So have it tested.” Many forages saved for winter feed might look good but they could be low on protein, or they could be low on energy, which is particularly important heading into those coldest days of winter, he says. So know your feed quality and be prepared to provide a supplement if key nutrients are lacking.

He says also remember cows and heifers need to be on a higher plane of nutrition during the last trimester of pregnancy. “If you have different qualities of stockpiled feed put them on the lower-quality feed, such as straw or chaff, earlier in the winter grazing period and then switch them over to higher-quality feed as they approach calving.

He also recommends first- and second-calf heifers be fed separately from mature cows. Those heifers have higher nutrient requirements than mature cows so it is important their winter feed is meeting those requirements. “Sometimes producers will manage those replacement heifers really well from weaning until the time they are bred, and as soon as they have that first calf they get moved into and managed with the cow herd,” says Lardner. “But that heifer herself is still growing so has higher feed requirements. She needs to be managed properly right through until that second calving. Producers have a lot invested in these heifers and they need to be managed properly.”

Lardner did caution against babying replacement and first-calf heifers in a drylot with high-quality feed. He says don’t be afraid to put them out on swath or corn grazing or bale grazing with supplements as needed. They can do very well with a well-balanced swath grazing ration, and then become very efficient animals later in the cow herd.

In WBDC research, studies have evaluated all types of extended fall and winter grazing systems. They found cattle did well on all systems, noting in some trials they actually gained weight on winter corn grazing. Producers need to watch as corn protein levels can be low. A low-protein feed can be a concern during the coldest stretches of winter grazing, especially as the pregnant cow nears calving. “Again, it is the importance of a feed test to know the protein and energy density of the feed stuff whether it be corn or a cereal swath,” he says. A good mineral supplement should also be provided through the entire year.

In a recent WBDC winter grazing trial, with good-quality feeds, two groups of mature cows did equally well on barley swath grazing and corn grazing compared to a third group fed in a dry lot.

Cows in all three systems were able to maintain a body condition score in the 2.6 to 2.7 range. “Any negative effects on cow reproduction (pregnancy rate) occurs only when the BCS drops below 2.5 during the pre-calving and pre-breeding periods,” says Lardner.

The Beef Cattle Research Council has good information as well as videos explaining and showing the proper technique for body condition scoring on its website.

About the author


Lee Hart

Lee Hart is a long-time agricultural writer and contributor to Canadian Cattlemen magazine based in Calgary. Contact him by email at [email protected]



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