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Winter’s coming; protect your herd

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts this winter will be “another arctic blast with above-normal snowfall throughout much of the nation.” Believe it, or not. You may doubt the authority of a forecast based on formulas constructed in 1792!

Winter’s coming; protect your herd

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts this winter will be “another arctic blast with above-normal snowfall throughout much of the nation.” Believe it, or not. You may doubt the authority of a forecast based on formulas constructed in 1792!

If so, you might choose to believe more “scientific” predictions of an active El Niño. But guess what? That forecast is the same: Many areas will have a colder, wetter winter. The almanac still claims an 80% accuracy rate over the years. And that probably drives computer-driven meteorologists crazy!

Whichever forecast you want to rely on, it’ll have substantial impact on cow herds now worth their weight in gold — well, almost. And due to extended periods of “outdoor housing,” proper winter feeding and management of brood cow herds is worth big bucks — gained or lost.

Many producers substitute feed for shelter. That is, they supply necessary nutrients for the cow to meet all her bodily functions.

Failing to do so is a big mistake. The cow loses body condition, causing problems for its winter- or spring-born calf.

Then she suffers a much-delayed recovery period for returning to heat and conceiving the next calf. Then, your bank account suffers!

Calculate these feeding costs

In years past, many producers assumed the only way to winter a brood cow was “ad lib hay.” Given her nutritional versatility and today’s grain prices, that’s not necessarily true.

With $8 corn, there wasn’t much discussion of substituting it for hay. Now, it’s worth a look.

Trials conducted at Purdue and Ohio State universities some time ago confirmed that similar results can be obtained with varying hay and corn levels. Results are summarized in the accompanying tables.

Purdue’s study utilized still-developing young cows. Ohio State’s study involved mature cows. Both compared a traditional ad lib hay feeding program with a limited hay-corn program.

Performance differences weren’t statistically significant. So relative feed prices should guide your decision.

I calculated the daily cost of rations fed in Purdue’s study using local feed prices: Corn at $3.40 a bushel; good hay at $165 a ton; and soybean meal at $350 a ton. All hay (ration 1) costs $2.09 per head per day; Hay plus intermediate corn (ration 2) costs $1.47 per head a day; and the high corn (ration 3) cost $1.42 per head a day.

Who knows where the corn market will bottom out. But it’s already competitive.

Bottom line: You should be as versatile as your cows when it comes to designing a winter cow-feed program. With the corn market falling, this grain is worth working into your feeding program.

Plug your feed prices into the daily feed amounts in the tables and see what’s most economical for you.

Harpster is a beef producer and retired Penn State University animal scientist.

What cattleman would keep Holstein bulls for beef?

Regarding October’s column, “Prime time for more dairy beef”, a reader asked: “Who would deliberately keep a group of Holstein bulls known for their bad temperament and handling issues when it is so easy to make them steers?” Given the high price of dairy bull calves and the historic steep discounts levied against them by the packers, can you produce dairy beef profitably?

Feeding dairy bulls isn’t for everyone. It requires a specialized market. Some producers are making it work; others wouldn’t consider it!

No one would likely feed bulls for beef beyond 18 to 20 months of age. The only exception to that rule might be in a pasture/all-grass system where no energy supplementation is made.

Bulls should only be considered if raised and kept together from a young age. This window of opportunity may be limited to while overall beef supplies are tight and discounts for Holsteins are reduced.

7 keys to winter feeding success

Conclusions and recommendations from the Ohio State and Purdue studies suggest the following:

Take three to four days adjusting up the corn and decreasing hay to your desired level.

Feed intake is being limited, so make sure that cows have enough space so that all cows can eat at once.

The protein and mineral supplement can be similar to that used for feedlot cattle fed a high-grain diet. Such a supplement was used in the Ohio State University study. But soybean meal was used in the Purdue University study. In the latter case, it’s necessary to offer a balanced mineral-vitamin mix free-choice.

Feed corn whole. Ohio research has shown that whole corn works better than ground corn when daily hay intake is limited to less than 5 pounds. It also has the obvious advantage of less feed processing.

The feed additive Rumensin can be included in the supplement and has decreased off-feed problems in cows limit-fed hay. An increase in feed efficiency would also be expected.

Carefully monitor body condition and adjust as winter progresses. In spring-calving herds, the requirements of pregnant cows increase in the latter stages of pregnancy.

Be prepared for cows to “tell” you that they aren’t a fan of limit feeding! While their nutrient requirements are being fully met, their gut won’t be full as in ad lib hay feeding. Feeding more than cows require will eliminate any potential feed cost-savings. If taken to the extreme, you may cause over-fat cows.

If you have corn silage available, a reasonable wintering ration for an average (1,200-pound) cow during mid-gestation would be 40 pounds of silage plus 4 pounds of hay. In late gestation, increase the hay to 7 pounds.


DRAG IN THE GRAIN BUNK?:With declining grain prices, it may be worth it.

Ohio State study:
Mature cows fed hay vs. high concentrate










Winter wt. chg.

(Oct. to Apr.)



Calf birth wt.



Calf wt. (July)



Calf wt. (Oct.)

* HC = high concentrate



Purdue study: 2- and 3-year-old cows limit-fed hay during winter

Ration (lbs./hd./day)




Chopped hay




Ground corn




Soybean meal




Winter wt. chg.

(Jan. to Apr.)




Condition chg.

- .40



(5-pt. system)

Calf birth wt.




Calf daily gain

(1st 30-60 days)




This article published in the December, 2014 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Beef Herd Management

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