How to beef up cattle nutrition in the winter

Planning for your winter nutrition program each year can help improve overall herd health for years to come

by Taryn Milton

For cattle producers, nutrition is important all year long, however, the winter months become a critical time for ensuring animals receive enough feed and minerals, especially cows calving in the spring.

The best way to ensure you have a successful winter leading into calving season is to have a plan.

“Whenever we’re trying to feed cattle, whether that’s the most economical or pushing those upper limits of performance, having a well-thought-out and balanced plan will put us in the most successful position to do that,” says Kurtis Reid, an account sales specialist at Masterfeeds covering Saskatchewan.

Along with having a plan, producers should consider doing feed testing and body condition scoring to help determine their winter nutrition programs.

This month, we talk to experts and a producer about the importance of nutrition for cows in the winter, options to consider when planning programs and resources that may provide additional insight.

Prepare for winter

When producers start looking at their winter nutrition programs, they should ensure they have a couple items on their to-do lists.

Completing feed tests on the food available to your cattle during the winter is critical to develop a strong feed and mineral program for your herd.

Tyler Fulton outside beside cattle
    Tyler Fulton photo

“You can have the best intentions and provide what you think is required, but if you don’t have the feed tests, then you really are just flying blind. You need to get that information in order to inform the decisions that would ensure good health of the animals and make sure that you’re doing it for the least-cost method,” says Tyler Fulton, a cow-calf producer in Birtle, Man.

Fulton’s parents, David and Verna, recently transitioned the 650-head cow-calf operation to him and his wife Dorelle. David is still involved in the operation and employee Zach Iverson works on the farm as well.

The family feed their cattle corn through the winter months – half is fed as silage and the remainder is grazed. They also feed some alfalfa silage and barley or oats when needed.

Each year, the operation performs feed testing to make sure their cattle receive the right nutrition.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So, if you’re not taking feed tests then it’s really a difficult thing to know if you’re supplementing appropriately,” says Fulton.

The feed test “determines the mineral component of the ration. Usually, we’re providing a 2:1 mineral to make sure that it remains balanced with a fairly modest inclusion rate, especially because we’re using alfalfa.”

Producers can consult the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) website for help in determining if their feed needs some additional support.

“We have a really cool tool on our website, called the Feed Testing & Analysis for Beef Cattle. It goes through everything about how to feed test, when to feed test and where you send it,” says Stacey Domolewski, research and innovation coordinator for the BCRC in Calgary.

The tool also allows producers to enter their feed test results and select their class of cattle.

“What it’ll do is give you red light, green light or yellow light. Green light is good and means this feed is going to meet the nutritional requirements of the cattle. Red light means don’t feed this as a stand-alone source, and yellow means there are some things you should be concerned about,” Domolewski tells Better Farming.

Dr. Gabriel Ribeiro in field with cattle
    Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence photo

Along with doing feed tests, a good way to help determine your nutrition program for the year is to do body condition scoring, says Dr. Gabriel Ribeiro.

Ribeiro is an assistant professor in the college of agriculture and bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan. He is also the Saskatchewan beef industry chair at the university.

“One very important thing (to do) in the fall before the winter, is assess the body condition score for cows to make sure they have an adequate score. That would be between 3 and 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 5, or 5 to 6 on a body condition scale of 1 to 9,” Ribeiro tells Better Farming.

Knowing your herd’s body condition score is useful when you develop a nutrition program to either help your animals maintain or gain weight throughout the winter, so they can calve in good condition later in the year, says Ribeiro.

Producers can visit the BCRC website at to learn about completing body condition scoring.

Importance of nutrition during winter months

Since many cows in Western Canada calve in the spring each year, winter is a critical time for ensuring they get the right nutrition.

Around the month of February “is when the requirements of those cows increase because it’s the last third of the gestation when there is large growth of the fetus. The requirements of (cows) increase quite a bit in that period,” says Ribeiro.

During these months, producers know the weather on the Prairies can become very harsh. While cattle adapt to winter weather, extremely cold temperatures cause all cattle to have a higher feed requirement, says Ribeiro.

Cow in field in winter
    Jodie Aldred photo

“When temperatures start to go below -20 C (-4 F), even those adapted animals start to increase their energy requirements a little bit because they need to produce more heat to maintain their body temperature,” he says.

“There is a recommendation for producers to increase their feeding of grain when temperatures drop below -20 C. So, for every five-degree drop below -20 C, (producers should) increase a pound of grain or a pound of pellets.”

Making sure cows have good feed, as well as minerals, during this time helps set up their calves, says Trevor Greenfield. He is the founder and owner of Riomax in Redwood Falls, Minn.

Riomax provides producers with highly concentrated, low-consumption, max-digestion nutrition products for their livestock.

“What (producers) want is a healthy calf that bounces back up and starts to suck, so we can get that colostrum in it to give it a good start to its life. We want a vigorous, healthy calf and we don’t want scours,” he tells Better Farming.

To help start calves out on the right foot, it’s a good idea for producers to consider adding a product like a mineral tub to their nutrition program, says Greenfield.

“The most important thing is to ensure you’re using a mineral that gets into the blood. Now, that might sound pretty elementary, but it is so overlooked,” he says.

Ensuring minerals get into the blood means a calf in development receives the benefits and starts out on the right track, says Greenfield.

Adding minerals to your nutrition program also helps cows become healthier overall, says Greenfield.

If producers “have a form of mineral that’s available to the animal and that has digestion-enhancing components that are a direct food source for the microbes or the bugs in the rumen, we empower that cow. We work with Mother Nature, not against her, to help that cow and the rumen increase nutrient uptake,” he says.

Fulton and his family provide their cattle with mineral supplements in the form of tubs with molasses.

“In particular, we’re really concerned about ensuring the correct mineral consumption for (our cows) later in the year, so February and March, as we start approaching calving season. We want to make sure that they’re getting the micronutrients like selenium,” Fulton tells Better Farming.

Program improvement tips

Completing feed tests and body condition scoring are both great ways to set your winter nutrition program up for success but it’s also important to be agile and make changes when needed.

“Over time as the producer gets more experience, (nutrition program plans) repeat over the years, but we can’t keep doing the same thing,” every year, says Ribeiro.

Since forage quality changes each year, producers need to keep an eye on what’s different from year to year and adapt, he says.

Making sure your animals eat what you feed them is important too, says Fulton.

“You can’t always rely on the fact that they’re consuming exactly what you’re feeding, especially when you’re doing an extensive grazing system, like we do with our corn. You just don’t have confidence that every animal is getting equal access. So, you have to take precautions in order to make sure that there’s a lot of availability,” he says.

Ensuring cattle have good-quality water available is another important aspect to winter nutrition.

“Make sure that water is available throughout the winter and if you’ve never checked the water quality before, take samples and do some water analysis and see levels of salt, levels of sulphur (and other) minerals in that water. Those can affect the intake and also performance of the animal,” says Ribeiro.

Making changes each year also helps improve the herd and the genetics you’re producing, Reid tells Better Farming.

“I have a very strong belief that what we’ve been doing feeding cows and what we could be doing to feed cows is different. The genetics that we feed today are not the same as the genetics we fed 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 30 years ago.

“We can all appreciate the rich history of every farming operation, but just because our grandfathers did it one way does not mean we can’t put a newer spin to that and then maximize what we’re trying to do from a profitability or overall goals stand-point,” Reid says. BF

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