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Winterizing the Cow Herd - Part 2

Series: Beef Cattle Mythbusters | Story 2

Editor’s Note: See last week’s newspaper for Part 1 of this series.

Feed and Water

In winterizing the cow herd, calculation of forage needed to make it through the winter is also a priority. This can be harvested or standing forage. Either way, determination of how much a beef cow will eat is related to her size and the quality of feed (always rely on a forage analysis so that you know the actual quality of the feed you are dealing with). Remember that lactation, body condition, stage of pregnancy, forage quality, etc. all will affect the amount your cows eat. Table 1 has some rules of thumb that will help in figuring out how much your beef cows will eat per day (dry matter [DM] basis):

Expected intake of forages of varying quality (% of body weight, DM basis)

Very low-quality forages (40-49% TDN), wheat and barley straws; 3-5% Crude Protein (CP)

Dry cows - 1.8%

Lactating cows 1.25%

Low-quality forages (50-52% TDN); dry range, stalks, < 7% CP

Dry cows - 1.8%

Lactating cows - 2.0%

Moderate-quality hay, orchardgrass, bromegrass, fescue (52%+ TDN); 8 – 12% CP

Dry cows - 2.0%

Lactating cows - 2.6%

High-quality hay, alfalfa, green pasture, silage (57-62% TDN) 17—22% CP

Dry cows - 2.6%

Lactating cows - 2.8%

TDN = Total Digestible Nutrients

• It is essential that when feeding low-quality forages, that a balance of protein and energy are fed to satisfy the nutrient requirements of the class of cattle you are feeding.

• In severe weather conditions, the nutrient requirements of beef cows can increase by 40% or more. Providing adequate protein and energy is important for keeping animals healthy and tolerant of extreme cold.

• Additional feeding times may be required during extreme cold weather. I have had to add feeding times in sub zero temperature conditions and/or with winds. Cows are pretty tough if you can keep them out of the wind with plenty of feed and water.

• Separating thin and young cattle from the main herd may be beneficial to allow for increased nutrition to cows that are at greatest risk for reproductive failure. Cows in this category may benefit from feeding additional energy to pick up some body condition score before calving.

• Don’t forget the bulls! We want them ready for the next breeding season. But not fat!

• Body Condition Scoring (BCS) your cows in the fall will go a long way in helping to figure out how much feed should be fed. Feeding to attain a BCS of 5 at calving (on a 1 to 9 scale) will help reduce the chances of reproductive failure, especially in young cows.

• In stressful conditions, rapid changes in feeds and diets can cause digestive upsets.

• Don’t forget salt and mineral packages that should be provided to cattle based on where they are in the production cycle. If you are feeding old hay (more than a year old) vitamins may be declining so it might be advantageous to include with your feed.

• Finally, water is the most important nutrient, and an unrestricted supply of water is of paramount importance. Cattle cannot get sufficient water from eating snow. While they can get some water from snow, the act of eating snow will also reduce their core temperature making it harder to stay warm. Pregnant cows can each drink 20 gallons or more of water per day. Keep the water flowing and clean.

Daily Observation

• Look for signs of cold stress (shivering, blue membranes).

• Look for signs of dehydration, respiratory and digestive disorders (sunken eyes, heavy breathing, diarrhea, nasal discharge).

• Have an emergency action plan for severe winter weather.

• Have a current veterinarian client patient relationship (VCPR) with your veterinarian to assist with emergency health problems associated with severe weather.

Being ready for winter, and systematically managing around severe weather goes a long way in keeping beef cows safe and healthy. Another tool available is: Become a registered user of the Washington State University AgWeatherNet and have access to the new Cattle Comfort Index to assist in preparing your animals for severe weather events. For details, visit:

— Don Llewellyn is the WSU Lincoln County Extension Director in Davenport. He can be emailed at


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