Best practices for feeding cattle in the winter

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Source: University of Minnesota Extension

Proper nutrition during the winter months is crucial for all livestock, including beef cattle.  It’s estimated that winter feed makes up more than half of the annual cost of keeping a beef cow.  Here are some best practices for feeding your cattle in the winter months, and how you can minimize costs.

Know how much energy your cattle need

Energy requirements increase in the winter, so before you think about energy-dense feed, think about what you can do to decrease those needs as much as possible.  The energy requirement of beef cattle increases about 3 percent for each degree that the wind chill is below 59 degrees F, and increases even further in wet conditions.  Make sure you are providing your cattle protection from the wind and precipitation to help reduce their energy requirement.

High quality hay is a great source of energy for your cattle.  Intakes will increase in the winter, so purchasing and storing high quality hay is crucial.  To ensure adequate nutrition, have your hay sent in for a forage analysis.  Match animal nutrition requirements to the quality of your forage. For example, heifers and thin cows require a more energy dense diet, compared to older or fleshy cows. Sorting animals into groups based on body condition allows you to feed the available forage more effectively.

Reduce hay waste

To help reduce hay losses, there are several things you can do, starting with storage.  Hay stored outside usually has more spoilage during storage and lower palatability than hay stored inside.  The best way to prevent losses from storage is to store all hay in a barn or shed.  If that is not possible, the next best options, according to University of Tennessee research, are net wrapping your bales or storing them covered on tires.

On top of poor storage, improper feeding practices can also waste hay.  To minimize waste, feed hay in small amounts or in a feeder. When fed a limited amount of hay at a time, cattle have less opportunity to trample and soil the hay.  Also consider feeding hay in well-drained areas, as keeping hay dry also reduces waste.

If you intend to feed hay in a single location all winter, provide a footing such as crushed gravel or concrete to help minimize mud. It may be more cost effective to move hay-feeding areas around the farm to minimize the damage to any one area of the pasture.  Lastly, if you have hay stored indoors and outdoors, feed the outside hay first.

Following these suggestions will help ensure proper winter nutrition, reduce winter feed costs and maximize feed value.

Emily Wilmes is an Extension educator in livestock who works in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties.

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