Strategies for wintering your cattle herd

This fall, focus on nutrients instead of feeds. Feeds are just a means of delivering nutrients

Fostering business relationships with grain farmers can give cattle producers access to residue and salvage crops.

With all the variable weather we had this year across Canada and the short winter feed supplies in some areas, producers need to solve the economic challenge of balancing the herd’s winter feed or nutrient supply when feed is short.

“The problem with drought for Canadian beef producers often boils down to two options: buy more feed or sell some cattle,” says Dr. Hushton Block, a beef cattle nutritionist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lacombe, Alta..

Producers need to ask themselves what their cattle are worth right now, and what they will be worth at some future point. What feed or nutrients do they have right now and what resources will they need in the future? What are feed or nutrients worth right now?

Without creating more feed or removing cattle, there are potential solutions based on using feed more efficiently. Grinding, using feed bunks to reduce waste, proper feed storage to reduce loss, balancing nutrition — including minerals and vitamins — are all options for improving feed use. These ideas can provide important incremental solutions to feed shortages.

There is opportunity for techniques and technology. Using a feed bunk instead of feeding on the ground can reduce feed waste from 25 per cent or higher to as low as 10 per cent. This reduces the need for feed and could generate enough savings to pay for itself in short order, especially as feed prices increase, says Block.

“If you can save 30 per cent in feed losses including storage and feeding waste, or if you can make better use of your existing feed with strategic supplementation, then you may have solved a feed shortage,” Block says. “However, I suspect that many who have not already made changes like this are going to be even more reluctant than usual to spend money when feed costs are increasing and cattle prices are declining, regardless of potential return on investment.”

Barry Yaremcio and Duane McCartney sample a silage pit to determine feed quality. photo: Supplied by Duane McCartney

We need to encourage more value-based pricing of hay based on weight and true feed test results, instead of appearance and assumed weight, Block adds. That would allow producers to make better comparisons of feed value versus cost. Beef producers should adequately sample and nutritionally analyze their available feed stuffs and compare results against cattle requirements. The question then becomes which nutrient limitations remain. It could be energy or it could be the amount of available bypass protein.

“As an example, silage alone will give good gains on backgrounding cattle, but we have found that additional protein was needed to make silage work to its optimum potential,” Block says.

Protein has two purposes in the diet, Block explains. “First you need to meet the rumen microbe’s requirements. Then you need to address the animal’s needs.”

The rumen is where most of the feed is degraded. Rumen-degradable protein is broken down and reused by the microbes. Any excess is converted to ammonia and excreted in urine as urea. This represents a waste of dietary protein and a loss of the energy used by the cattle to convert ammonia to urea. But a deficiency of rumen-degradable protein will impair microbial growth and fermentation, lowering the supply of both energy and microbial protein to the animal.

Feed urea is a low-cost means of correcting a rumen-degradable protein deficiency with a non-protein nitrogen source. Only use urea as a protein supplement to correct dietary rumen-degradable protein deficiencies. Excesses will not increase protein supply to the cattle, but will reduce energy availability and could elevate ammonia to toxic levels.

Rumen-undegradable protein escapes degradation in the rumen and is available to meet requirements for metabolizable protein, which supports maintenance, growth, pregnancy and lactation. A deficiency in metabolizable protein reduces performance in these areas. A metabolizable protein surplus will result in increased and inefficient use of protein as an energy source.

Bypass protein supplements can address metabolizable protein deficiencies. They are usually more costly than non-protein nitrogen and are only used after meeting rumen-degradable protein requirements and microbial protein contributions to metabolizable protein. Base decisions on bypass protein supplementation on the relative cost of bypass protein and expected performance gain. This is about getting the right feed, not just more feed.

Finding alternative nutrient sources

Across Canada, there are all sorts of supplements or alternative nutrient sources that can provide the necessary nutrients, extend existing feed supply and lower feeding cost. Years ago, I had a friend in central Ontario that fed waste Smarties and chocolate bars from the candy factories in Toronto to his feedlot steers. When I visited him, he had a 20-ton pile of Smarties and was mixing them with corn silage.

“In Ontario we have access to screenings from the local elevator, distillers and corn gluten from ethanol plants and starch plants,” says Ron Coulter, a feedlot operator at Creemore, Ont. “Sometimes, producers will use old hay for bedding, as straw is in short supply since a lot of Ontario straw goes to the mushroom farms. Others can feed any type of waste from the vegetable industry, including cull potatoes and carrots. One has to be careful of the effects of feeding some of these waste products as cull carrots may turn the backfat orange in finishing cattle.”

“In Eastern Canada we often have some pretty high-quality first-cut silage that may exceed a beef cow’s needs,” says John Duynisveld at the Ag Canada Research Centre at Napan, Nova Scotia. That silage can be diluted with a low-quality hay or straw.

Duynisveld emphasizes the need for good feed quality samples to create a balanced diet for whatever stage the cow might be in.

“Ed Charmley and I did some interesting work with this about 15 years ago, and were able to use around 25 per cent high-quality silage with barley straw and a small amount of grain to meet winter calving cows’ nutritional requirements,” says Duynisveld.

Grinding, using feed bunks to reduce waste, proper feed storage to reduce loss and balancing nutrition are just a few options for improving feed use during a shortage. photo: Supplied by Duane McCartney

Food safety programs and biodigesters have reduced availability to cull potatoes and potato waste, along with other vegetable waste such as carrots and cabbage, says Duynisveld. However, for those producers who can find vegetable waste, usually the energy value is decent.

“We have shown you can feed up to 80 per cent potato waste in finishing diets with no issues. With an inconsistent supply of a high-moisture product, storage can be challenging, as can maintaining some degree of consistency for the rumen. I always caution to make this a part of a balanced diet, but not too much of it without assurances of product quality and supply,” says Duynisveld.

Christoph Wand, livestock sustainability specialist with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, recommends producers “look for anything cheap: straw, residue, commodities, silage. And be prepared to reformulate.”

Wand says they’ve had success using corn grain or any other grain commodity to stretch hay, when corn is cheap and hay is not on a substitution methodology. Producers need to remember to limit feed in that situation, Wand adds.

“You need some kind of fenceline feeding system where bunk space is not limiting,” says Wand. “While we have had good success with whole corn supplementation of out-wintering ewes, we don’t have access to ‘range cubes’ to make it feasible with cows.”

If we could find a way to use cob corn, potatoes or get a large pellet, that would make it work for out-wintered cows, Wand adds.

In Western Canada, beef producers have access to canola meal, distillers grain, grain screenings, different types of unharvested crops and different types of straw.

During my career at Melfort, Sask., and Lacombe, Alta., I concentrated on developing low-cost wintering rations based on straw. The main thing we found was that straw rations needed to be supplemented with limited amounts of high-quality hay or alfalfa or grain. In times of short feed supply, beef cows could be successfully wintered on low-quality straw rations before calving, but cows had to be on a rising plane of nutrition following calving in order to successfully conceive and calve at the same time each year.

For the past three years, Grant Lastiwka, forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has successfully fed his cow herd second-cut hay for two to three days and straw for four to five days, depending on ration quality needs and weather. All feeds are tested, bales roughly weighed, and ration balanced on feed disappearance.

“I have hay in one paddock and straw in another. I drive animals out of the hay paddock and shut them off so I don’t need to finish exposed hay in that timeline,” says Lastiwka. “Cows get trained quite quick. I want to make my quality feed go farther.”

Nutritional challenges with alternative feeds

Murray Feist, provincial livestock specialist in Saskatchewan, has other nutritional concerns this year. They include sulphur contribution from feeding byproducts such as dried distillers grains, and canola meal; use of kochia in diets with potential oxylates and nitrates problems; and the need to be on top of vitamins and minerals on diets based around straw or poor-quality forages.

“I can’t help but wonder if we will see issues with high potassium in cereal greenfeeds this year that may lead to milk fever and downer cows come calving time. Many diets will be salvage crop or greenfeed supplemented to meet the animal’s requirements,” says Feist.

“One last caveat that most producers are thinking is the idea to plan not only for this coming winter, but add on the carryover into spring and summer to start working on pasture relief,” Feist adds.

All beef cattle nutritionists this fall are indicating that ration formulation will be more important than ever to maximize targeted feed use and stretch feed supplies. With this in mind, the Beef Cattle Research Council has developed a new information site on feed testing at

“The site goes into great detail on how to do feed sampling and explains what the results mean,” says Barry Yaremcio, livestock specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

The page has two different feed nutrient calculators, developed by members of the Alberta Beef Forage and Grazing Centre, including Block, Yaremcio, Herman Simons, Jennifer Schmid and Karin Schmid. The first calculator is for producers who have tested their feeds and do not know what to do with the results. The intent is to evaluate one feed at a time and determine if the feed is suitable for the type of animal it is intended for. After the feed test results are entered, the tool uses animal nutrient requirements that are hidden in the background to calculate results. Results are coded “red” (inadequate), “yellow” (close to meeting needs) or “green” (all is good).

The intent is to have the user get an idea of feed quality and to encourage them to contact a nutritionist or use a program such as CowBytes to do a more complete job of balancing the nutrients in the rations.

The second calculator helps determine the economic and nutritional value of the feed in question. It uses reference feeds — barley grain to determine the value for energy and canola meal for the value of protein. Producers input feed test results and price of the feeds in question. The tool will then calculate if the asking price is fair, low or high compared to the values established from the reference feeds, explains Yaremcio.

Planning for the long term

When looking at your current winter feed situation, Dr. Greg Penner, University of Saskatchewan, says: “It all boils down to planning for the future and knowing what your needs are. There is a need for a long-term plan. While this does not help in the current year, drought preparedness is a planning effort.”

To Penner, a major missing link is to foster business relationships with grain producers. They may be looking for additional revenue and could have areas of their fields that are suitable for residue grazing, he says. There has been a lot of research evaluating crop residues and there is now substantial work showing improvements in soil conditions with winter-feeding systems.

This requires long-term relationships and access to water, but there may be scenarios where it might not be worthwhile to harvest the crop, Penner adds. Grazing could be a salvage opportunity for grain farmers.

The other aspect is to consider carryover of feed from year to year, Penner says. This is a well-established model for the ranchers in the south, but there are many beef producers who rely on annuals within their system. They might not be as comfortable in having residual feed from year to year when considering storage losses and rodents.

Finally, crop selection can play a role, Penner says. Winter cereal crops could be a viable option. Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lacombe have good information on the value of seeding winter crops early.

“Given changes in weather patterns, this is something that I think has real promise and is not emphasized that much,” says Penner.

Dwayne Summach, livestock and feed extension specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture at Kindersley, also points out the need for planning in the beef business. He emphasizes the requirement to evaluate available feedstuffs for quantity and quality.

“I think that there will be lots of straw and greenfeed in our area this winter. Producers need to build an appropriate plan that includes time frame,” Summach says. “You need to work with a nutritionist or extension specialist that will identify what additional resources will be required. This could include alternative nutrient byproducts coming from malt sprouts, millrun, grain screenings pellets, commercial pellets, dried distillers grain, canola meal, oat hulls, etc.”

Using lots of annual crops means producers need to pay attention to mineral supplements, Summach adds. Start planning early as some alternative feedstuffs will be difficult to purchase later in the year, he says.

“The key thing to do is to make adjustments to herd size if necessary early in the grazing season. By the end of May this year, the really good managers in my area had reduced their stocking numbers by 25 per cent, mostly by sending their yearlings to feedlot rather than to pasture,” Summach says.

This winter, producers need to plan on having feed available until the grass is ready next spring, says Summach. In the Kindersley area, that means June 1, not April 1.

“The carryover grass was gone last fall, yet producers still turned their cattle out when the feed pile ran out in late March and early April,” says Summach. “Those pastures did not respond well this growing season.”

With a later rain in the growing season in some areas, hopefully producers are able to manage pastures in a way to put good condition on cows heading into the winter, Duynisveld says.  It’s easier to feed a fat cow through winter than a thin one, regardless of her productive state. Sorting into groups based on body condition and feeding according to needs can ensure that the animals that need precious quality feeds get them.

“Having cows in good condition prior to the onset of winter can significantly reduce feed requirements,” Yaremcio adds. “Early weaning or supplemental feeding animals on pasture are options to improve cow condition prior to winter.”

Securing alternate feeds or additional feed supplies at a reasonable price requires planning and time to consider all the possible options, Yaremcio concludes. In areas where feed is scarce, it is often more economical to move the cattle to the feed than move feed to the cows.

About the author


Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.



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