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Ensure proper winter management of beef herd

Tyler Stableford/Getty Images Young man on truck carrying hay to cattle
WINTER CHECKLIST: Ensure considerations are made for nutrient requirements in production cattle during the winter.
From nutrient changes to wind blocks, meet your cattle’s needs for a comfortable winter.

With winter and the weather changes it brings, now is the time for cattle producers to consider their management plans for dealing with not just the cold temperatures and wind, but also their herd’s nutritional needs.

“Our mind goes to the weather changes, but there should be considerations toward the animals’ nutrient changes,” says Zachary Carlson, North Dakota State University Extension beef cattle specialist. “In a cow-calf operation, we’re moving through the phases of gestation, so not only should we consider the impacts of winter, but also the energy and protein requirements for pregnancy,” he says.

Nutritional needs

With a dry year hitting producers across the region, Carlson advises they check their feed inventories to plan ahead. “We need to take a look at what we have in store and be testing our forages. Even if it’s green and smells right, it doesn’t mean that the protein and energy levels are as high as usual, given the year we’ve had,” he says.

After weaning, a dry cow has the lowest nutritional requirements she will have over the year, so lower-quality forages are best utilized now. “We should be prepared to save some of our higher-quality forages for later in the winter, especially as the cattle get closer to calving and when energy requirements increase closer to calving in January, February and into March,” Carlson says.

The addition of a starch-based concentrate feeds or grains can fill nutritional gaps, but producers should avoid overfeeding grains and causing acidosis. “Primarily, in a cow-calf operation, you can get by with some corn or other gain-based concentrates. Aside from grains, producers can feed soy hulls, wheat midds, barley malt or beet pulp — whatever they can get their hands on — to supplement cattle with high-fiber feeds,” he says. These high-fiber feeds can add body condition back to animals, or be a feed addition to lower-quality forages.

Weather considerations

North Dakota on average has 50 days a year that fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit, which often are accompanied with additional wind chills that push conditions colder. While many producers are used to the chilling temperatures that come with winter in the region, keeping animals comfortable can take careful management.

“Something that can’t be understated is the impact of the wind and wet conditions. Many producers already utilize windbreaks for their herds, but they need to recognize the impact that the wind can have in really cold temperatures,” he says.

Adequate protection can be provided in the form of portable panels, a row of bales or tree breaks. “We want to also provide protection in those circumstances where they might be grazing crop residue and be mindful to provide a place where they can seek shelter out of the severe weather,” Carlson says.

Another aspect to keeping animals safe and comfortable includes providing adequate bedding options for cattle. “When we do start to see really cold temperatures, we want to provide some type of insulation between that animal and the ground in those cold and wet situations,” he says. “When we’re dealing with a lot of moisture, we want to ensure that we’re placing that bedding to make sure the animals have a dry place to rest.”

Available water

Having the most important nutrient available year-round can’t be underestimated. “We really can’t talk about water and water sources enough, and the feed and water intake are directly correlated to another,” Carlson says. “Depending on the herd and size of animal, a rough estimate for water intake is somewhere between 9 and 13 gallons of water per day per head, and so it’s extremely important to have an adequate supply of water available.”

Many ranchers have plans and systems in place to keep water available for cattle year-round, and Carlson says “to be mindful of all options available.” From power and energy systems to well or natural sources, having a backup plan is imperative. “We might need a tank that runs off propane as a backup, or having insulated tanks or frost-free devices to keep those sources open for them,” Carlson says.

While cattle might resort to snow if no water is available, Carlson says this should not be treated as a feasible option to ensure proper hydration. “We know we can have some really nasty temperatures, and we want to be mindful that animals always have access to that water source. We shouldn’t rely on cattle consuming snow to meet their water needs, especially in a grazing situation,” he says.

Producers can contact their local Extension agent for forage testing or other management questions, or refer to NDSU’s publication on winter cattle management.

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