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Time to consider winter supplements for beef cattle

Royce Towns, TFC Nutritionist 9/29/2020

It won’t be long before winter arrives and it is one of the most critical times of the year for feeding cattle. Intelligent decisions now can have a significant impact on how well your herd is prepared for the upcoming calving season. Proper nutrition can have a positive effect on the health of newborn calves, the amount of milk produced by their mother, and how soon the cow breeds back after calving.

Cow-calf operations in the Southeast are based on forages, and at this time of year, producers generally rely on harvested hay for the majority of the herd’s diet. This hay must be adequate quantity and quality to meet the nutrient requirements of brood cows at various stages of production. For spring-calving herds, winter feeding coincides with the last third of gestation and early lactation. Cows at these stages of production require a considerably higher level of nutrition than dry cows do in early gestation. If these nutrient needs are not met, cows tend to calve in poor body condition, give birth to smaller, weaker calves, and take longer to breed back than those that calve in good condition. 

Even though beef cattle are uniquely designed to process large quantities of roughage, there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Forage that is over-mature at cutting, combined with poor harvest and storage conditions, can result in a winter hay supply that provides less than desirable amounts of protein and energy. Such deficiencies also decrease the digestibility of the forage, limiting the amount of hay a cow can eat. Since both consumption and nutrient content of such forages are low, supplementation may be necessary to meet the cow’s nutrient requirements. The challenge then becomes knowing which supplement to use and how to use it. 

The first step in the decision-making process is determining the nutritive value of the hay supply. Forage testing is available from various sources various sources such as University of Tennessee Extension can serve as a basis for making logical decisions concerning supplementation. A basic forage analysis will offer information about the protein and energy levels present and allow the producer to rank hay from various fields and cuttings according to their relative feeding value. Highest quality hays can then be reserved for lactating cows, heifers, and thin cows.

Experience tells us in most cases, energy will likely be the most deficient nutrient and can be most effectively provided by pellets or cubes formulated specifically as forage supplements. Such products are designed to be high in energy yet low in starch so they enhance rather than impair forage digestion. Feeding rates will be determined by the quality of hay being fed, and the supplement should be hand-fed daily to reduce variations in the rumen environment.

If labor and time constraints make daily hand-feeding impractical, self-fed tubs or liquid feeds can be another option. Though not intended to directly supply energy to the animal, they do stimulate rumen microbes so more pounds of forage can be digested, resulting in an increase in nutrient intake. Keep in mind because of their relatively low consumption rates, tubs and liquid feeds are generally not designed to compensate for large nutrient deficiencies.

Winter feeding costs typically make up a sizeable portion of the annual cost of maintaining a beef cow. So, cattlemen should always choose to implement nutritional programs that provide the greatest return on their investment. Correcting nutrient deficiencies by appropriate supplementation can significantly impact an operation’s bottom line. Visit with the beef cattle experts at your Co-op to design a winter feeding program that meets your specific needs.

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