Old man winter is coming – are you and your animals ready?

by Jean L Clavelle

Here in the west, most people feel cheated by this year’s short summer.  Snow arrived early last fall and then stuck around far longer than we all felt it should have this spring.  However, whether we like it or not , winter is fast approaching!  For the average Joe this means blowing out the sprinklers, finding those extension cords, and winterizing your house.  Not only do producers need to do all of those things, they also need to worry about getting their animals ready for winter too.Winter Cows PIC

There are a few key items on producers’ checklist each fall to ensure they optimize herd health and reproduction in the winter.

Body Condition Score the herd

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is a valuable management tool for estimating the amount of energy reserves (body fat) an animal is carrying.  Fat on a cow’s body acts as an insulator against cold temperatures and can be used to adjust feeding programs to optimize efficient use of available feeds. The ability to withstand cold increases as cows carry more fat.

The Canadian system rates animals from 1 (very thin) to 5 (grossly fat) using the fat cover over the tips of the short ribs.  This scoring system allows individuals to speak the same language when describing body condition. Rather than using ambiguous rating terms such as “fat”, “moderate” or “thin” based on visual appraisal, condition scoring assigns a numerical rating based on the feel of your cows.

For optimum efficiency of winter feeding mature cows should go into winter with a minimum BCS of 3.0 and not drop below 2.5 at calving.   Nutritional management strategies which focus on maintaining these BCS levels result in lower winter feeds costs.

Fat levels on cows going into the winter will have a dramatic effect on the feeding options and respective costs. Cows going into the winter with extra fat will require less energy over the winter than cows going into the winter thin.  Cows fed to gain one-half of a body condition score over the winter, will have 20 to 30 per cent higher feed costs compared to those fed to maintain body condition.

For more detailed information see:  Western Forage Beef Group – www.foragebeef.ca

Sort animals by nutrient requirements

Of course not every producer has the facilities for this, but if possible it is beneficial for the herd and the pocketbook.  Three options are to separate the herd into 3 categories: mature cows in good condition; bred replacement heifers and second calf heifers; and thin and old cows.  Mature cows do not require the extra energy that older animals require and heifers may not be able to compete for feed with the mature cows.  By separating the herd, producers are able to optimize energy requirements and not over or underfeed any one group.

Have feed tested and rations balanced

Cattle use feed most efficiently when the nutrients in the daily feed match their daily requirement – hence the term balanced ration.  The tricky part is determining the actual nutrient content of the feed available.  If a producer knows what she is feeding in terms of protein, nutrients and energy values, she can tailor her whole feeding program to fit her cattle. That may save her a lot of money and could improve reproductive efficiency.

Feed nutritionists, commercial feed companies or your Extension specialist are able to provide advice on how to sample and test your feed products, and then balance rations to meet the needs of your cattle using your feeds to their best advantage.  A little time and a few dollars spent planning can mean the difference between satisfactory performance on minimum feed or thin cows, poor calves, low fertility and/or wasted feed resources.

For more information on these topics see the CattleFacs series at www.facs.sk.ca

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