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Self-fed supplement guidelines for beef cow-herds during cold weather

There have been bouts of cold weather episodes this winter ranging from short, tolerable conditions to extreme almost unbearable extended cold with little relief. We still have several months where temperatures can influence cow herd condition and it is extremely important to successfully manage through them, especially for spring calving cow herds. 

As we deal with winter conditions, there are three important factors for consideration:

  1. Temperature
  2. Wind
  3. Moisture

All three of these can have a major impact on cow energy requirements and will influence your feeding program. Many articles have addressed the impact that cold temperatures have on energy requirements of cattle and how increasing the digestibility of the diet can help with providing additional nutrients, particularly energy to meet the needs of maintaining body temperature. While making major diet changes may be desirable, most producers will want to work with what they have to manage through these temperature swings as best they can. Below are some guidelines that will help you manage your current self-fed supplement program to maintain animal comfort and best meet increased nutrient demand during periods of cold weather.

  1. Supplement placement
    Although temperature is a significant factor for animals experiencing cold, don’t forget what wind chills can add to their stress. Most people like to place supplements out and away from loafing areas to spread cattle out and limit the amount of time and energy required for cleaning up wintering grounds next spring. During extreme cold temperatures it is critical that cattle are not faced with having to battle wind in order to reach self-fed supplements. One of the survival mechanisms during extreme cold for wildlife and domestic animals as well, is to limit their energy expenditure. That is why you see them find low lying areas out of the wind and bunch together as a collective group to help limit exposure to the cold. They limit their energy usage by restricting their activity and behaving more as one large bovine unit to limit surface exposure to the cold elements as opposed to many individuals needing to fend for themselves. It would be a good idea to provide new supplement barrels like CRYSTALYX® within their wintering grounds and close to where hay or supplemental forages are fed and are protected from the wind. This will help make sure that they continue to have access to protein supplements that will help maintain steady fiber fermentation. When conditions get cold and harsh, do not force your cows to go on a hike. There will be plenty of time for them to get exercise when weather returns to normal.

  2. Alternative/supplemental forages
    In order to improve energy status for your cow herd, short periods of high quality grass hay or alfalfa can help get cows through cold weather. Five to ten pounds of a good quality hay together with their current lower quality forages will help provide additional nutrients without disruption to the rumen environment. If possible, distribute the high quality forage on top of the typical forage that is fed to help reduce variability with intake due to pecking order within the herd. Generally, the individuals further down the pecking order need their share of the higher quality forages even more.

  3. Be careful when providing grain/starch supplements
    While feeding grain can be a readily available feedstuff for cow herds, particularly for those who also participate in crop farming, you will want to limit how much you provide. Smaller quantities of grain, 3 to 5 pounds/head/day, when offered on a daily basis and when adequate protein is provided, can be fed with minimal disruption of fiber fermentation with the forage portion of the diet. However, the trick is to provide these small amounts equally across the herd when they typically have not been receiving starchy grains. Large amounts of grain, or slug feedings, can dramatically interfere with fully harvesting or digesting fiber components of the diet. Disrupting forage digestibility when cattle are already stressed can do more harm than good and should be considered when cattle are accustomed to bunk feeding or have plenty of space for consuming these smaller portions of the diet as competition will be fierce when feeding.

  4. Moisture content is important
    While moisture or exposure to wet environmental conditions intensifies energy requirements when combined with cold temperatures, this 4th point is focusing on the moisture content of supplements. There are several different types of self-fed blocks/tubs available on the market.  As temperatures drop dramatically this could impact intake and those supplements that have a higher moisture content will be the most affected. CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements are a low-moisture block (LMB) product where most all water/moisture is removed during the manufacturing process. The impact of cold temperatures when using  LMB supplements is minor compared to other forms. Poured blocks/tubs use reactive ingredients to bind water from liquids used in their manufacturing process. They can be from just under 20% moisture where some products are higher than 30% moisture. Producers should carefully watch consumption on these products to make sure cattle are still consuming them during extremely low temperatures and in particular if these conditions last for several weeks.   

So in a nutshell, be mindful of where you place self-fed supplements in the pasture/lots/wintering grounds so cattle are not exposed to bitterly cold winds, high quality forages can help increase nutrient supplies in order to provide increased energy requirements without impairing fiber fermentation, a little daily grain feeding is ok but getting it spread equally across your herd may be more disruptive than what it is worth and finally, don’t forget that all self-fed supplements are not the same where those with higher moisture content could essentially freeze up and provide little supplemental nutrition.

Remember that cattle have adapted well to environmental conditions over the years within your geography. When mother nature decides to test the extremes, we want to limit the stress our cow herds deal with in order to maintain animal comfort and production efficiency. Hopefully these guidelines will make dealing with extreme winter conditions easier on you and your herd.