Preparing the Cowherd for Winter

With the dry weather throughout the province this summer, managing a beef cowherd has been a challenge this year. Winter is just around the corner. Last year, we had a mild winter which cut down on feed costs but caused problems with winter kill of alfalfa.
So what should be done to prepare for this winter?

Dealing with Feed Shortages

Most everyone in the province put up less hay than usual, so producers have gone to alternative feeding strategies. For some this has meant the addition of a TMR mixer which then allows them to blend different feeds to come up with a ration for beef cows that was acceptable both from an expense and nutrition perspective. In the long term, the TMR will pay for itself with a ration that is cheaper and better suited to beef cows.

Some are using feedstuffs they have not used before such as straw, corn stalks, oatlage, turnips, peas etc. Producers have been checking the internet, visiting with other farmers and/or consultants to learn more about these feeds with respect to nutrition, storage and feeding. There have been some things to learn such as when to bale based on how wet or dry the feed should be. Nitrates have been a concern with stressed corn and are now a concern with oatlage, particularly if cut early and stored wet. Nitrate toxicity causes the blood to lose its oxygen carrying capacity so be on the watch for cattle panting, staggering etc. Time and ensiling will see nitrate levels drop, but it is worthwhile to have the oatlage tested at a credible lab. If the level is high, it should be blended with other feeds. Blending feeds is always a good strategy for rumen health and efficiency.

The feeding system strategy has to limit cows to what feed they need without overfeeding and with minimal waste. Spreading feed on frozen ground can be an efficient way to minimize feed waste so long as the cattle are only fed what they need (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Spreading feed on frozen ground

Figure 1. Spreading feed on frozen ground

Herd Evaluation

Fall is a good time to sit down and do some evaluations on the cowherd by comparing some key performance measures to previous years.

  • Pregnancy rate - % of cows exposed that are pregnant
  • Weaning weights - adjusted weaning weight - with poor pastures due to dry weather, these are likely to be down unless creep feed was supplied
  • Sale weights
  • Sale weights compared to cow weights
  • Weaning percentage - % of cows exposed that weaned a calf
  • Productivity - lbs of calf per cow exposed


After looking at the herd measures, then comes looking at individual cows. In a year with short feed supplies, it becomes more critical to cull any cows who will not work well enough to make money for you next year.

  • Anyone that is open
  • Cows with feet and udders bad enough that will affect their production
  • Late calving cows or cows that are poor performers based on the performance measures above
  • Cows with attitudes that you can not put up with another year

Similarly it is important to look at herd bulls. The nutritional requirements and thus costs for keeping a bull are generally higher than a cow. Consequently serious consideration should be given to culling bulls:

  • With extra age
  • Bad feet and temperament
  • In excess of a ton
  • Bulls with a lot of daughters in the herd
  • Whose calves are anything less than outstanding as he can be replaced in the spring with a young bull who is better

As always the winter months will be challenging, but a few management decisions can be made which will make it easier and more profitable.

For more information:
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