Beef Tips

Options for managing cows through the winter with limited forages

by Jaymelynn Farney, beef systems specialist, Parsons, KS

Drought-stressed pastureThe drought that plagued most of the state through the previous winter and this summer was a perfect storm that has some operations concerned about forages for this winter.  There are areas that have limited pasture growth and even with some of the recent rains, the rain may be too late or insufficient to change the pasture situation.  Through last winter, around the nation, there were producers that fed more hay than typical and that has used up a significant amount of hay reserves.  Given all these factors, cattle producers need to find alternative feedstuffs to maintain current cow numbers.  This article will address a few things to think about when trying to stretch forages.

Use of annual forages.  With the recent August moisture, producers might be able to grow small grains and brassicas for fall to early winter grazing.  If planting prior to September 15, there may be sufficient growth to offer some relief to perennial cool season pastures.  All of these fall/winter annuals are high energy and protein feeds that more than exceed a dry, pregnant cow’s maintenance requirements.  Strip grazing and limit grazing these annuals can increase the stocking density on the paddock and can stretch the grazing days.  The annuals that seem to grow the fastest for fall/winter grazing include oats, barley, and all the brassicas (i.e. turnips, radishes, rape).  Annual forages are not a silver bullet when other forage resources are limited since they still require moisture and an early freeze can severely inhibit growth.

Substituting hay with a high energy feed.  Feeding a starchy feed such as corn is an option in cow-calf operations.  Generally, we consider this a “no-no” for the cow operation as it can potentially inhibit voluntary forage intake.  Traditionally grass is the cheapest commodity and the resource that producers want to utilize to the greatest extent.  However, in limited forage situations cost per unit of energy may favor use of corn or other high-energy feeds.  We do need to be aware of the substitution effect that comes into play when doing so.  Some report that feeding corn to cows at less than 0.3% of body weight will have limited impact on voluntary hay intake and fiber digestion.  Offering corn at levels greater than this can result in reductions in fiber digestion and hay intake.  At certain proportions, adding corn to the diet could reduce total energy intake.  Nutrition and extension professionals can develop a feeding program that determines how much corn and how much harvested forage should be offered to meet performance objectives.

Correctly balancing the diet can result in feeding less hay to the cows, thus extending the forage supply.  To more accurately develop a feeding strategy, a forage analysis will be beneficial.  The following is an example of how to stretch your hay by feeding a high-energy feedstuff such as corn.   Assume your hay is 8% crude protein and 46% TDN and corn averages 8% crude protein and 88% TDN (all dry matter basis).  For each pound of corn fed, you can feed 1.9 pounds less hay to achieve a diet that has the same protein and energy as hay alone.  Another thing to think about is there are some high energy, and high-protein by-product feeds that can be used as a substitute for hay.  These are often a preferred feed because of reduced bloat and acidosis potential since the starch has been removed.

Limit feeding.  Nutrient dense diets can be fed to cows, especially if limiting the total amount offered to meet but not exceed requirements.  Typically, cows on a high-quality forage can easily consume 2.5% of body weight (dry matter basis) daily.  If cows are in good flesh prior to start of feeding, the goal would be to maintain, not gain weight.  Thus, feeding a primarily silage ration at 1.8% of body weight could meet cow requirements while extending feed resources.  When limit feeding cows the first couple of weeks you will think that they are losing weight.  These cows will appear gaunt as compared to full feed on pasture.  If you run them across the scale they will also weigh considerably less.  The difference in weight is purely based on rumen fill.  Monitor body condition score to evaluate if the ration is meeting goals.   Other things to consider when limit feeding cows is that cows will be hungry, and all cows will want and need to eat at the same time, thus a minimum of 24 inches of liner bunk space needs to be provided.  Cows should be fed at the same time each day.  High-energy, limit fed diets require little time for consumption and leave many hours in the cow’s day to find trouble.  These cows could also be somewhat more vocal and might do some moderate damage to the facilities (driven by boredom).  When limit-feeding cows make sure to mix the salt, mineral, and vitamins into the ration.  Do not offer free-choice because they will over consume.

Ionophore use:  Ionophores are a feed antibiotic (veterinary feed directive not required) that alters the rumen microbes to generate higher energy metabolites to the animal.  This improvement in efficiency has been demonstrated by research out of Oklahoma State University where cows maintained the same body condition on 10% less hay when consuming an ionophore as compared to cows that did not receive the ionophore.  Ionophores are cheap (roughly $0.02/hd/d) and improve feed efficiency.  At this time there is only one ionophore that is approved for use in the reproducing cow (tradename Rumensin).

Sort and feed by body condition and requirements.  Sorting cows by need will minimize over and under feeding.  If you have the space, place all thin cows and cows with a high nutrient demand (pregnant replacement heifer, early lactation cow) in the same location and offer these cows a more nutrient dense diet.  The cows that are in adequate body condition and just need to maintain weight can be fed either a less nutrient dense diet that is cheaper or the same nutrient dense diet at a restricted amount, whichever is most economical.  This approach will increase the overall feed efficiency and will result in less waste (overfeeding the fatter cows).

A few other options to consider include:

  • Limit access to hay. Some studies have shown that you can remove cows from hay for 12 hours a day and they will consume less hay and maintain the same condition as cows with free choice access.
  • Hay feeder type can have significant effects on the amount of hay wasted thus reducing the number of bales that go through a feeder and time to clean up feeding sites.
  • Pregnancy check if you haven’t already. Make sure to remove cows that have no chance of producing a calf in the short term.  Feeding open cows can become very expensive if you have limited resources.
  • Graze crop residues.
  • Make strategic culling decisions.

As you are making the tough decisions, it will help to have accurate estimates of the available resources, costs, feed analysis, and labor restrictions.  Not all of these options will work in every operation but being willing to do an in-depth evaluation of your capabilities will help you to determine what works for you.  Take advantage of the resources provided by your local extension unit, nutritionist, and state extension specialist to help evaluate resources to maintain your cow herd.

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