Managing Winter at the Feedyard

December 18, 2015

Winter weather brings its own set of challenges to the cattle feeder.  Whether you are running open lots, total confinements, or something in between, adjustments need to be made during the winter.

Because of lower temperatures, cattle will require more of what they consume for body heat so less is available for gain.  They do compensate by consuming more feed in cold weather, so feed efficiency is generally impacted by cold weather more than daily gain.  Keeping cattle more comfortable and warmer during cold weather will pay you back in improved feed efficiency and a lower cost of gain.

Open Lots
The construction of windbreaks can make a big difference to the health of the cattle and to the amount of time spent cleaning the pen.  The windbreaks not only reduce wind chill on the cattle, but can also reduce the amount of snow dropped in the pen.  Tree lines are effective, but if windbreaks need to be constructed they should be a minimum of 10 feet tall with a surface that is 80% solid and 20% open.  Wind breaks will disrupt the wind for about 10X their height, so a 10 ft windbreak will disrupt the wind for approximately 100 ft.  In the past, windbreaks were often built (or planted) to protect both the north and west side of the pens; this can disrupt some of the cooling breezed from the southwest in the summer so the recommendation now is that windbreaks are a straight line going east to west, and extend far enough west to protect the pens from a northwest wind while allowing breezes from the west for the summer.

The pen surface needs to be maintained in the winter to reduce mud.  Puddles grow from any depression in the surface that can catch water, and puddles will grow into holes quickly.  While the pen surface is dry, take a rear blade of a soil mover to level off and fill in any holes.  Make sure to maintain enough slope so that the water can get away to the settling area at the bottom or outside of the pen.   It is also important to maintain the pen surface so cattle can walk freely and so that there are no frozen chunks that can cause cattle to injure a joint or bruise a hoof pad.  Remove all snow from the pen as soon as possible to prevent mud and damage to the pen surface.

Mounds can give cattle a dry place to lay.  If constructed large enough, they also acts as windbreaks in the winter (deflecting the wind over the cattle laying on the lee side) and can also help the cattle catch a breeze in the summer at the high point.  Mounds should be at least 6 feet higher than the base of the pen, and should be at least 50 feet wide at the base.  You will need at least 1 linear foot of mound per head in the pen.  Mounds should be tied in to the concrete feed apron so the cattle have a high and dry traffic pattern.  Traditionally mounds have been centered in the pens with a valley on each side and a smaller rise for the fenceline (known a lazy W) but if the pens are too narrow to construct a proper mound you can build fenceline mounds with one large valley in the center.  This way the cattle in each pen have two halves of a mound, one on each side of the pen.

Whether cattle are outside in open lots, or inside in sheds they will benefit greatly from adequate bedding.  Bedding helps keep the cattle warmer, not only by giving them a drier place to lay but also by maintaining a more natural haircoat which insulates them better from cold weather.  A natural haircoat has loft that traps warm air next to the body, like a down jacket.  The lower critical temperature (where cattle can regulate their own body heat without additional feed or shivering) is 59o F for a summer hair cost (or a wet or matted haircoat) while cattle with a natural heavy winter coat have a lower critical temperature of 20o F.

In research done at Colorado State University and North Dakota State University, plus a closeout summary done on several hundred pens of cattle showed an average improvement of 13.5% for both ADG and DM F/G when cattle were bedded enough to maintain a natural haircoat.  This would be worth over $70/head for 6 weight calves on $3.50 corn.  In addition to the performance improvement, the CSU and NDSU work also showed a significant improvement in the number of cattle grading choice, with additional returns of $5-20/head at an $8 Ch/Se spread.

Cattle Sheds
More and more cattle are being fed in confinements, both bedded and slatted barns.  The improvements in performance more than offset the cost of construction, but keeping cattle in confinements has its own management challenges for the cattle feeder.  Cattle sheds can be very wet places due to manure and urine from the cattle and from moisture as they exhale, so it is very important that there is sufficient air movement all winter to move moisture out of the building without putting a draft on the cattle.  The best way to achieve this it have a 1-2 foot gap high on the windward side of the building so that air can move in and then travel directly up the roof line and out the ridge vents on a gable roof or out of the top front of the monoslope.  Warm moist air rising off of the cattle and the bedding pack will be carried out of the building better when fresh air is coming in close to the ceiling.

Feed and Water
With cattle rations in the winter, the most important thing to be prepared for is to have a plan for storm diets.  Cattle will naturally consume more feed two to three days prior to a winter storm.  To prevent acidosis from the increased rate of intake and to produce more heat from digestion it is common to increase the roughage in the diet.  This can be done by simply adding 1-3# of ground hay to the ration as intakes go up, or it can be done by dropping back a ration or two to a lower energy diet.  Once the storm is passed, you can go back to the regular finishing ration and deliver what the 5-10 day average was prior to the storm diet.

The other consideration in ration management in the winter is the increased presence of mud.  Mud tends to make intakes and feed deliveries more variable.  The highest energy finishing ration in your set will also be the trickiest ration to bunk manage.  For this reason, many feedlot will drop back a ration during the muddy times to make bunk management easier.  While we normally prefer the higher energy rations for improved feed efficiency and cost of gain, having a steady feed delivery on a 58-60 NEg will provide better feed efficiency than a variable feed delivery on a 62-64 NEg.

Lights can help feed intakes, whether in buildings or in open lots.  Research has documented that cattle with 16 of light and 8 hours of darkness eat significantly more feed than cattle with 8 hours of light and 16 hours of darkness.  DMI increases of 5-10% has been documented in confinements when some light was left on all night long.

Water supplies its own challenges during the winter months.  While water intake will be less in the winter than in the warm summer months, adequate water intake is essential for proper feed intakes and gains.  Ice can be kept off the water through electric heaters or a constant flow of water. Electric heaters can keep waterers open, but it they are in older waterers they can be expensive to run and you may have a risk of stray voltage which will reduce water intake.  In new waterers, electric heater use is much more efficient with much less risk of stray voltage.  Energy free waterers can keep water from freezing, but can also limit water intake by the cattle because of reduced open space, physical barriers (such as balls) or because they seldom get cleaned properly.

Bottom Line
Keeping your cattle comfortable during the winter is not only good care and welfare, but will pay you back with improved performance and lower costs of gain.  For further discussion on managing your cattle during the winter, please contact your closest QLF Cattle Consultant or District Manager.

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