Winter Considerations For Beef Cattle


   Although we were very dry this fall, the rain that we received over the holiday season was rather excessive. The Mississippi River is slowly going down, but pastures and lots are still extremely muddy. Now temperatures are going to become more typical – much colder – for this time of year. We are not the only ones that feel the cold – cows entering the winter months thin will be affected by cold stress more than cows of moderate to good body condition.
   A cow needs the correct level of nutrients to at least maintain her body weight during winter. Heading into the winter months, cows should have a body condition scoring (BCS) of 5 to 6 (where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese). Optimally, this body condition should be maintained throughout winter, regardless of their diet. Increasing the cow’s body condition prior to winter can provide a valuable “cushion” for times of increased energy needs. Loss of too much body condition can significantly impact the following: calves may be born weak; colostrum production may be inadequate in amount and/or quality, which can compromise calf survival; and the postpartum interval may be lengthened.
   Keeping warm is the largest part of cattle’s maintenance requirements in the winter, and cattle will use available nutrients for maintenance before fulfilling any other needs. If adequate nutrition is not provided, cows will pull energy from body fat reserves to keep warm. Thus, cows must be supplied with enough protein and energy to meet their maintenance requirements, as well as additional nutrients to support fetal development and lactation.
   Consider the following: the lower critical temperature (LCT) for cows in adequate body condition with a normal, dry winter coat is approximately 32º F. Below 32º F, the amount of energy needed by the cow for maintenance begins to increase. However, if the hair coat is wet, maintenance requirements are at a much higher temperature – 60º F. Thus a cow’s nutritional requirement not only increases as the temperature decreases or on windy days, but is impacted even more if she becomes wet due to rain or snow. These numbers can be affected, towards the good, if windbreaks, shelters, or bedding are provided during winter.
   Not only will cold weather affecting cattle performance but producers have another thing to consider during winter, mud. It is less clear what effect mud has on a cow’s energy requirements but it is estimated that it can increase the maintenance requirement from 7-30 percent. If cattle have to deal with mud, then their ration should also be improved. Animal welfare considerations need to be considered along with how the public views our operations. If at all possible, move the cattle to a more suitable location.
   Thus cattle require more energy (not protein) to make it through the winter months. More energy means additional high-quality forages and grains. It is a myth that grain rations are hotter rations.  High-quality forage rations actually provide more heat for livestock. The extreme weather this past spring and summer definitely impacted the quality of forages available for this winter. To ensure that your cattle’s nutritional requirements are met, consider having the forage tested to better understand what your forage contains.
   Additionally during calving it is important to watch calves for scours. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can attack the lining of the calf’s intestine and cause diarrhea. The decrease in absorption of essential nutrients from milk leads to weight loss and dehydration. If the disease level is severe, calves often die. Calves that survive will perform poorly for the remainder of their lives when compared to healthy calves.
   Newborn calves should receive adequate colostrum within the first 6 hours after birth. Once the calf has received colostrum from the dam, it is essential to minimize pathogens overwhelming the calf’s immune system. Generally, calf scour pathogens build up in the environment as the calving season progresses. Calving in the same area that older calves are in greatly increases the risk to the newborn calf, especially in wet or muddy conditions. If possible, close-up cows should be rotated onto clean pastures while cow-calf pairs remain on the old pasture. Additionally, the calving area should be kept as clean and dry as possible. Even the best calving management will have no effect if the first thing a calf ingests is manure from the calving area.
   Closely monitor your cows and calves throughout winter. If some start to lose weight, you can quickly intervene by providing supplemental feed. Frequent monitoring, common sense and practical animal husbandry will bring your cattle through the winter in fine shape. ∆
   DR. TERESA L. STECKLER: Extension Specialist, Animal Systems/Beef, University of Illinois

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