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Winter Cow Nutrition Affects Production and Profits

December 18, 2015

How we feed our cows over the winter can have an enormous impact on calf vigor, calf health, cow milking ability and re-breeding.  Improved profits can be a matter of selling more pounds of calf per cow – this can be achieved by heavier weaning weights but can also be achieved by having more calves to sell – you simply cannot afford to cut corners on cow nutrition.

There are at least 14 different minerals that are required by beef cattle for metabolism and performance.  Mineral deficiencies often show no visible signs at first, but those deficiencies may show up as calves that don’t gain quite as well, reduced milk production, reproductive problems, or poor response to veterinary treatment.  Minerals are essential for proper metabolism, including milk production, rumen function and reproductive health.  Chelated or organic trace minerals can be a good way to help cows catch up from a deficiency.

Energy is the key to proper body condition, and proper body condition correlates directly with calving stamina and re-breeding.  If you have cows that need additional body condition you should try to put it back on during mid-gestation when the cows requirements are lower and when temperatures are generally higher.  These make it easier and much less costly to put condition back on cows, versus waiting until the last trimester when it’s cold.

Compared to mid gestation, cows in late gestation need 30% more energy and cows in early lactation need about 90% more energy.  Testing your feeds allows you to know those energy levels so you can blend and balance low quality forages with higher quality forages to save money and still hit the energy targets.  Overfeeding energy results in higher costs than necessary, and can even negatively affect lifetime reproductive and milking performance in cows that deposit excess fat in their udder or around their reproductive organs.  Young cows less than 4 years old also need to continue growing in addition to maintaining their body condition so first calf heifers need 12% more energy and second calf cows need 6% more energy than mature cows.

Besides body condition and fetal growth, cows will also need energy to deal with the winter weather.  Cold temperatures, high winds, and a wet hide will all add to the cow’s energy requirements for maintenance.  Every 10 degree drop in temperature below 30o requires 1-2# of additional TDN; this added energy requirement can be covered by feeding 4-8# additional corn silage for every 10o drop below 30.  While this additional TDN can also be delivered via 1-3# of additional corn grain, there is risk that the feeding of the corn grain will cause a negative associative effect where the starch in the grain lowers the pH and reduces the rumen bug population to the point that you also lose fiber digestion.  Corn silage is a better and safer way to add energy to cow rations.
Wind increases the impact of lower temps, and rations can be balanced to the average wind chill temperature.  A damp hide requires 12% more energy and a wet hide requires 25% more energy for maintenance as the hair loses its insulating capacity.  Mud reduces feed intakes and results in lost energy intake and greater energy use.

Having extra body condition can also be important to help cows get through severe winter weather.  When a winter storm comes and you cannot get to the cows, good body condition will be their best defense against the extreme cold as both insulation and as reserves they can pull energy from.

For gestating cows, protein is primarily required for proper rumen function; for cows that are already in good body condition, poor quality forages often have the energy to maintain body condition if supplemental protein is fed so the rumen bugs can properly digest the fiber.  Protein requirements rise about 25% in late gestation to support fetal growth, and will increase another 50% in early lactation to support milk production.  Protein is also needed for antibody production to help natural immunity in both cows and calves.  Without proper protein levels, weak calves, reduced colostrum quality and reduced milk production will result.

QLF is committed to helping cow/calf producers get the most out of their cows and feed through properly formulated protein and mineral supplements and properly balanced diets.  Please contact your local QLF dealer to learn more.

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