Cattle producers know their animals can normally take a little cold weather. Winter coats on healthy mature cattle really do help hold in the warmth. But when winter is harsh, it's time to emphasize bedding, especially in confinement situations. Remember that "harsh" can mean 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below when cattle are young, especially if conditions are wet and windy.
The good news is there's likely a financial return that goes with this level of animal care and management.
A North Dakota State University study allowed researchers to compare different types of bedding used for steers. What they used wasn't fancy—just wheat straw. It was thick enough to keep animals off of the snow or frozen ground (reported at 3.2 pounds per head, per day). That small change showed worthwhile returns on finishing steers. When compared to a group with no bedding, average daily gains improved (+0.86 pounds), as did gain-to-feed ratio, finishing weight, hot carcass weight, dressing percentage, marbling score and ribeye area.
How much bedding should a producer consider having available as this winter progresses?
Megan Nelson, Extension livestock outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin, notes in her state snow cover can last on average 65 to 140 or more days. There are also a lot of cold, wet muddy days in both the fall and the spring. All of these conditions increase the amount of bedding producers should plan for.
While it's dependent on the individual operation, Nelson believes in planning for 180 days of confinement bedding needs for beef cows; as well as for feedlot cattle. The rule of thumb is about 5 pounds of bedding per head per day.
This winter, producers are dealing with the aftermath of a season of adverse crop growing conditions in the region. That has created both winter feed shortages and winter bedding shortages.
While corn stalks are the common winter bedding choice in Wisconsin, we are reminding producers that equal amounts of small grain straw can be used. Other winter bedding options include sand, shredded paper, or even sawdust. Each has its pros and cons, but producers should use the option that will work best for them to provide a dry, warm environment for cattle this year, she says.
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