Winter Cow Nutrition Important

Drought Conditions, Feed Supplies Affect Cattle Management

During winter months, cattle producers need to be aware of their cows' needs nutritionally. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Pamela Smith)

ADEL, Iowa (DTN) -- During 2023, much of the country saw many variations in moisture levels, feed prices and forage supply, which has led to many cattle producers needing to manage the herd differently.

Chris Clark, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist, said during an ISU Extension cow herd winter feeding workshop here last week that factors to consider when looking at nutrient requirements for the cattle in your herd include knowing the age and class of cattle you are feeding, which will help to know what quality of forage is needed. Other information needed includes the weight or body condition score (BCS) of your animals, stage of production and length of the feeding period.

"If we know the condition the cow is in, we can better match the nutrition to meet their needs for metabolism, activity, growth, basic energy requirements, pregnancy, lactation, added energy requirements needed for estrous cycling and excess reserves," Clark said.

Having cows in proper condition, which Clark said is a BCS of 5 or 6, helps a cow to cover all the needs nutritionally and provide what is needed for the calf during gestation and lactation. Cows will also breed back faster; calves wean heavier and perform better when cows are in the right condition.

"The highest energy requirements for a cow are at peak lactation, which is also during breeding time," he said. "The lowest energy requirements are at weaning time."

Clark suggested separating cows based on nutrient requirements. Mature cows are generally the easiest group to manage. First- and second-calf heifers generally have a lower intake and higher nutrient requirements since they are still growing. Thin or old cows need to add body condition and need to have a higher intake. Colder weather and precipitation mean an increase in energy is needed, which is when the nutrient value of the feed is so important.

A core sampler should be used when taking samples of hay and put deep into the bale to get a good cross-section of the bale from 12 to 15 inches in. The forages analysis should provide dry matter, crude protein, neutral detergent fiber, acid detergent fiber, total digestible nutrients, lignin and minerals. The results from the lab should show these, and Clark suggested working with a nutritionist to be sure the diet is balanced.

"Once nutrient conditions are known of stored feeds, it's best to feed the lower-quality feed first and save the better feed for later in gestation," Clark said. "Then make needed adjustments as cows start into lactation and have more nutritional needs."

Extending the grazing season can help decrease the need for additional feed. This can be done through cornstalk grazing, rotational grazing, stockpiled grass and having winter annuals to feed. When this isn't possible, Clark said it is even more important to prevent wastage of feedstuff. This can most commonly be achieved by feeding a total mixed ration in a bunk or using proper bale feeders.

For more information on winter feeding, visit

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at

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