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Finishing Out Winter Feeding Profitably

By: Alex Tigue, Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent

For cattle producers across the country, feeding the cowherd in the winter is arduous task that will ultimately decide whether they are profitable or not for the entire year. Most spend the majority of the year planning and preparing for this 3-6 month period of daily feeding, and with good management this can be done economically and effectively. Planting winter annual forages and stockpiling perennial grasses, as well as many other management practices can be done ahead of time to lower the cost of wintering cows. However, by the New Year planning is over and you are likely well into the winter feeding period. Here are some suggestions regarding how to best manage the rest of this winter  in a profitable manner.

Determine how much hay you will need and how much you have:

Fortunately, this year was great in terms of the volume of hay produced. A wet spring and summer lead to many hay growers producing excess hay, so sourcing additional hay maybe easy, but don’t wait too long. Cattle will eat roughly 2.5% of their body weight daily in dry matter. Feed and forage considerations are often referred to on a dry matter (DM) basis.  For example a 1200lb cow will consume approximately 30lbs of hay (1200lb x .025) per day on a DM basis., Do not forget to take into account young calves, herd bulls, and any replacement heifers that will also be eating hay.

Estimate how many days you intend to  feed hay. If your operation is primarily fescue-based, spring green up might occur in early to mid- April. Bahia and Bermudagrass would be closer to mid-May or June. If you planted ryegrass or some other type of winter annual forage, that could be very beneficial in getting the cows grazing sooner and away from the hay ring.

Using the number of pounds of hay needed per day and the number of days you plan to feed hay, we  can roughly estimate the total amount of hay needed. Calculating your hay inventory, however, isn’t quite as easy. Counting bales or rolls of hay is simple enough, but estimating the weight of that bale is virtually impossible. It is best to weigh a few bales and obtain a rough estimate of the weight. Next obtain a hay sample and send it to a laboratory for analysis (more on that later) to determine the dry matter percentage and nutrient content.

Additionally, hay waste is a big concern, in both storage and feeding. Hay stored outside without protection from the elements can have as much as 20% loss due to weathering. Also feeding hay without a hay ring or some other feeding method can result in up to 20% additional waste. After accounting for moisture in the bale and waste, you might actually need twice the amount of hay to feed the cows than they will actually eat. Utilizing a hay ring with a sheeted bottom and storing hay inside a hay barn become economic “no-brainers” when financial loss due to waste is considered.

Making sure you meet the animal’s nutritional requirements

Unfortunately, wet years like 2018 tend to create a situation where hay is overly mature when it is harvested, causing it’s nutritional value to be much lower than what the cattle require to perform. A forage analysis is the only definitive way to determine hay quality.. Taking forage samples and sending them to a lab through your local farmer’s co-op, feed store, Extension Office, or some other method is not only inexpensive (usually less than $20 per sample), but it is also the only way to get an accurate picture of the nutritional quality of the hay.

Nutritional demands of cattle change based on what stage of production they are in. For example, dry cows have the lowest nutrient requirements of anytime during their production cycle, whereas cows that have a 2-month old calf at side are at their highest nutritional needs. Average quality hay in Alabama typically meets the needs of that dry cow, but often leaves that cow raising a calf and trying to get rebred lacking protein and energy in her diet. Without proper supplementation, she will lose weight and likely fail to get pregnant for the next year.

Supplemental feeds are extremely variable in price and quality. It is important to tailor your supplementation program to the available feed resources in your proximity. It is very important that we make sure to purchase feeds that give us the best return on investment. Using estimated nutritional values of feeds or actual analysis, figure out how much a feed costs per pound of crude protein (CP) or pound of energy (total digestible nutrients or TDN) This is a more calculated and accurate method opposed to just looking at feed cost per ton. Many times, expensive feeds can actually be a better value, as you need to feed a lesser amount to meet the animal’s nutrient requirements.

It is important to supply the precise amount of feed to meet the animal’s nutrient requirement without overfeeding. Separate cows into feeding groups based on stage of production, then use your hay analysis to determine how much to feed each group needs to meet their needs exactly. Getting cows fatter than needed is not normally a very profitable way to utilize feed resources.

Success in the winter feeding period hinges on doing a good job feeding cattle economically. Some key factors are: making sure you have enough hay, identifying the quality of that hay, understanding the nutrient requirements of your cattle, and supplementing effectively. If you have questions, or need assistance creating this “prescription” plan for surviving the winter feeding cows, contact your local Calhoun County Alabama Extension Office at 256-237-1621, and ask for Alex Tigue, Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent.