Pregnant and lactating cows have different needs in the winter months 

Cattle are often pregnant or lactating this time of year, which means their energy requirements are different than during warmer months.

Energy is a vital macronutrient that is responsible for an animal’s health, maintenance and productivity; the amount of this macronutrient in livestock feedstuffs is derived from total digestible nutrients (TDN) found in fat and carbohydrates.

“Cattle get the majority of energy in the diet from carbohydrates, primarily fiber,” according to University of Missouri Extension Beef Cattle Nutrition Extension Specialist Dr. Eric Bailey.

Making effective management and nutritional choices that ensure cows’ energy requirements are met can ease some of the woes of wintertime on the farm.

Evaluate Condition: Dr. Shan Gadberry, ruminant nutrition specialist with the University of Arkansas Extension, encourages producers to evaluate cattles condition to make appropriate feed purchases.

“A cow’s energy need is influenced by her size, pregnancy, milk production and her environment,” he said. “This time of year, ranchers may wonder if they need to feed extra for cold weather. We have to step back and assess before going and purchasing a lot of extra feed. First, are the cows in good body condition and have a good winter hair coat? These are insulating factors that makes the cow more tolerant of lower temperatures.”

Keep Hay Out: Keeping quality hay available helps cows meet their energy requirements and can reduce the need for supplemental feed.

“When temperatures drop, cows compensate by eating more so it is important they can eat as much as they want.”

A forage test will help producers determine the quality of their hay and can assist them in making effective decisions if they purchase supplemental feed by making sure what they buy meets their cattle’s needs.

Check the Weather: While straight “cold” is not always a problem for cows, cold temperatures combined with other weather factors can cause the herd to need some extra calories.

“Is the air temperature cold or is there a lot of wind and precipitation too? The combination of these three is what really forces cows into a negative energy balance. If all three are true and the adverse conditions are expected to linger, then ranchers should provide some additional supplemental feed,” Gadberry said. He went on to explain that oftentimes it isn’t practical to fully compensate for the difference while inclement weather is occurring, so what many will do is to continue to feed the extra amount after the weather has improved to try and keep cows in good shape after unfavorable conditions have occurred. Long bouts of cold, wet and windy weather can result in thinner cows come spring, so in those situations, continued extra calories are important.

Other Considerations: “In addition to providing some extra calories when cold and wet weather develops, some additional things to do is try to have a wind break for the cows and move hay feeding areas to prevent deep mud. When cows have to work through more than 6 inches of mud depth to get to hay, consumption can drop,” Gadberry said.

Don’t forget water. Cows need plenty of water no matter what season, so producers must ensure an adequate water source.


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