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Coming down to the wire for planning cow herd winter supplement needs

Fall is quickly coming to an end and the winter months are soon upon us.  For most cattle producers actively growing pastures have also begun to go dormant and you either have stock piled forages, crop residues or stored hay supplies to help get you through to next Spring.  Drought conditions could also have impacted your typical winter nutrition program with limitations in your normal forage base.  It is a good time to put your program together now as you do not want to fall short prior to spring green up, especially if you have a spring calving herd.

The first step is to get a good handle on both the quality and quantity of your forages.  Take samples of the different types of forages you have available and send them in for nutrient content analyses.   Be sure that you save good quality forages just prior to and through calving if you are not yet to green grass by then.  Nutrient requirements of your herd are at their highest once they calve. 

One feature of a beef cow herd that provides considerable flexibility in a nutrition program is their ability to store energy as measured by body condition.  While many other livestock segments focus on balancing diets with animal nutrient requirements, beef cows have the ability to bank body stores to help them through periods of erratic nutrient intake.  Why is it that feeding beef cows can differ so much in this regard, compared to dairy cows, sows or calves in feed lots?  One major reason is feed intake and another significant factor is the environment.  When you consider hog, dairy and feed yards, they know exactly how much animals are consuming by closely monitoring feed deliveries.  Furthermore, many of the environmental impacts on nutrient requirements of the animal are also controlled with enclosed production barns.

Beef cows are raised across North America in a wide variety of production systems under an equally diverse set of environmental conditions.  How many producers know the first part of any nutrition equation… how much are your cows eating?  The truth to this answer is quite honestly, very few.  It becomes difficult to dial in a nutrition program when total intake is not known. 

We often use an estimate of forage dry matter intake of between 1.5% and 3% of cow body weight.  The lower estimate is used on low quality forages during gestation and the higher amount is used on high quality forages once cows have calved.  When planning hay needs make sure that you also account for losses associated with feeding which can range from 5% to as high as 45% depending upon method of feeding.   For planning purposes, a value of 3% of cow body weight is often used for planning stored forage needs during the winter period. 

It becomes apparent that in order to maintain a cow that rebreeds on time each year, proper cow condition management is key.  Even though we may not balance a cow’s diet down to the last ounce of energy she needs every day of the year, we need to make sure we focus on her body condition over the course of the year by paying close attention to how she comes into the winter months through calving, leading up to green grass in the spring. 

When selecting a supplement to help maximize the nutrition of your forage make sure you have an adequate supply of forages to get through the winter.  If the drought has left you short, an alternative nutrition program may need to be considered unless you are reducing the size of your herd or purchasing additional forage.  Supplemental protein will help increase intake and digestibility of lower quality forages.  Well-fortified self-fed supplements from CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements can help cows maintain their body condition when fed with low quality forages.  In addition, the labor savings delivery requires significantly less labor and equipment when compared with other supplement programs.  When evaluating supplements, whether they come in the form of a cube, liquid, tub or blocks, make sure you evaluate the delivery of the nutrition program in its entirety.  Some references are commonly made that comparisons should be on cost per unit of protein delivered on a dry matter basis.  While this is good advice, it doesn’t go far enough when comparing supplements as delivery can, in some cases, cost as much as the supplement itself.  Make sure you evaluate supplements that are delivered all the way to the cow.