Take the Winter Feeding Challenge

It seems that most articles on the winter feeding of beef cows are quite similar, with minor variations on themes. I hope you will find this article different! I am going to give you ten feeding strategies or ideas which I believe cow/calf producers should consider (and feedlot folks could take note of a few too). Some of the strategies work well together, while some are very effective on their own. They are all intended to help reduce that winter maintenance cost which, in the end, seems to be the real make or break part of the cow/calf production equation.

My challenge to you is to try at least one new strategy from the list this coming winter!

  1. Days at Grazing - Still the number one way to reduce feed costs. Stockpiled perennial pasture is low cost, providing feed at half the cost of using hay. Grazing a season extending annual crop is an intermediate cost strategy. There is a large amount of information available to provide ideas for your location in the province. One good link is www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/field/forages.html. Previous issues of Virtual Beef also have excellent articles.

Photo showing cows in a pasture

Figure 1. Moderate frame size cows on fall pasture

  1. Afternoon and Evening Feeding - No one seems to fully understand it, but the timing of cow feeding can influence the time of calving. Many producers have successfully used feeding in late afternoon and evening to push calving from nighttime to daytime. Using this strategy can reduce overnight (human) labour needs on the farm. To make this work you should start p.m. feeding about 4-6 weeks before calving to get the cows adjusted to the new routine.
  2. Reduced-Hay Rations (RHRs) - Hay was plentiful in most parts of the province this year, but read on! Commodities are also relatively inexpensive at this point. Might some purchased barley or corn help reduce your hay use and let you build a little forage reserve? For the folks where there were regional hay shortages, this should be a top notch hay stretching method.
  3. Ethanol By-products - Hand in hand with RHRs based on corn or barley, how about ethanol by-products? And in cases where a little extra protein is needed, such as with really bad hay, these by-product commodities deserve special consideration. For that matter, consider them in any ration where you'd use grain plus a protein source. As ethanol becomes more available at the gas pumps, the by-products from its production will become more available. Cow rations formulated with distillers' grains were covered in the Virtual Beef reference for RHRs as well. This topic promises to be popular at this winter's meetings!
  4. Bulk Silage - Using corn and forage crops for bulk chopped silage stored in bunker silos is worth a look. There are two advantages: in larger beef cow herds labour associated with harvesting forages in bales is a bottleneck. This limitation was also encountered in large dairies, many of which have moved to bulk silage to eliminate the bottleneck. The other advantage is the ease of mixing various feeds such as straw, grain and commodities with the chopped forage. Of interest in southern Ontario is that in many instances corn silage seems to be less expensive than hay, especially if purchased as a standing crop.
  5. Alternate Day Feeding - There has been a reasonable amount of research and enough farm experience to recommend alternate day feeding as a means to use feeds of differing qualities or characteristics without using TMR mixers and their associated costs. For example, if the theoretical ration required ½ poor quality hay and ½ better quality haylage, it would be best to combine them in a TMR. However, a close second in effectiveness would be to feed just one type of feed on a given day, with the other the next day. As an alternative, you could offer the same feed type for two days in a row (but not for more than two days.) The poorest strategy would be to put some bales of each type out each day! This is because of the dominance order in the herd … bossy cows will get all of the best feed and grow fat, while submissive cows will get only poor feed and suffer because of it. Similarly. corn silage or grain could be fed every second day as well. Get more details at www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/beef/facts/info_wintering.htm

"Wintering Livestock Using Alternate Day Feeding"

Photo sohwin a TMR mixer

Figure 2. TMR mixers are a good tool for blending corn silage and commodity feeds with forages in reduced hay rations

  1. Microclimate Management - Especially in the dead of winter, poor coat condition (caked with mud and or manure), wet wintering sites and wind can almost double energy requirements (or weight loss) for cows. In that mid-January to mid-February period in particular, consider the benefits of wind breaks and clean, dry resting areas. Get cows to that stressful period with enough body condition and clean hides to ensure good insulation. Windbreaks and shelterbelts are a science unto themselves, but a couple of key points are:
    1. slotted or porous walls are better than solid walls, (so the old bunker silo wall won't cut it unless you want to dig cows out of the snow drift).
    2. wind break fence or treed shelterbelts set at least 15 m (50 ft) from the site are the best way to go
    3. the Environmental Farm Plan promotes shelterbelts.

    Photo with cows in a sheltered wintering site
    Figure 3. Clean coated cows in good condition at a sheltered wintering site

  2. Calving Season - There has been a significant amount of research and discussion on how the season of calving affects winter feed needs. This is a major topic unto itself but it interrelates with the other nine techniques listed here. The OMAFRA site covers research on this topic at: www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/beef/cowcalf.html
  3. Reduce Cow Frame Size - The number one predictor of intake across cattle types is size and weight. The point is, the bigger the cow, the bigger her feed bill. Consider better use of terminal sires on smaller (not small) cows to keep calf yields up while keeping winter cow feeding costs down.
  4. Information Management - None of these strategies can be properly evaluated without basic information on your operation, such as forage inventories, cow weights and recording days at pasture. This is especially important if a big ticket technology, such as bulk silage, is being considered. All this information and much more will be needed to evaluate the potential and allow you to make sound decisions.
So try one of these strategies … and let me know how it works out!

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca