Winter Feeding Management

With winter approaching and a hard summer behind them, producers may find they are short of feed. Planning ahead, using alternative feeds and culling cows may be options to consider to improve cow performance and profits, writes TheCattleSite junior editor, Charlotte Johnston.
calendar icon 3 October 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

A winter feeding management plan will help producers maximise the use of their grassland resources. Knowing what herd feed requirements are will allow producers to make adequate decisions with regard to herd management and ensure maximum returns.

Assessing winter feeding stocks and knowing cow herd numbers will allow producers to assess whether there will be a potential feed shortage over the winter months. By looking at the situation, performance and profits could be improved. When assessing feedstocks consider what grass is available for grazing and what silage/ hay was produced and is available for feeding. It is important to know the quality of the forage, many experts recommend forage sampling so that the true value and density of the forage is known. Sampling hay and analysing it for nutritional quality will allow the producer to better meet the nutritional requirements of cattle with supplements.

Through accurate cow numbers, condition scoring and knowing the rough amount of feed each animal will require, producers can prioritise feeding, says Mr Poore, North Carolina State University. Young stock, replacement heifers etc will require high quality feed in order to gain weight. Dry cows will require lower quality forage mid-pregnancy, with medium forage required during late pregnancy.

Professor James Neel and Professor Warren Gill, University of Tennessee, suggest sorting the herd into production classes, this will allow groups to be fed to meet nutritional needs and will improve feed efficiency from forage.

Once the above details are known, producers will be aware of what additional measures they will need to undertake to ensure good herd management. If there is likely to be a shortage of feed, a number of options are available.

Avoid waste

When feeding forage on the ground, losses can exceed 30 per cent as cattle stand, lay, urinate or defecate on the forage. Simply placing a ring around hay bales will prevent this. Again, silage fed in troughs will have less waste than silage fed on ground. Alternatively, limiting forage available to cows may result in small weight losses however will result in hay savings which can be allocated according to feeding priorities and may decrease the need for additional purchased feeds.

Alternative feeds

Consider if alternative feeds are available on-farm? If not purchasing feeds will likely be an option. Prof Gill and Professor Clyde Lane, University of Tennessee believe there are several alternative feed resources which may be used to replace all or part of feed supply during limited feed availability.

Corn: If considering corn, producers should be aware of market prices. Professor Gill says that a general rule-of-thumb is that it takes five pounds of corn to replace nine pounds of average quality hay. If corn is used, changes to diet should be make gradually and corn levels should ideally be kept at below one per cent of body weight, so as to get maximum utilisation of forage.

Other grain: Grains such as milo, oats, barley or wheat may also be used but may require some processing.

By-product feeds: Products including soybean, distiller's by-products, whey, corn gluten feeds or vegetable by-products could be considered. However beware feeds that are too high in moisture, always calculate the value of feeds on a dry-matter basis including transportation costs. The nutrient composition of the feed should be known as nutrient content is variable in by-products and beware of contaminated feed.


Prof Neel suggests that culling low producing cows that would take feed from the productive ones would be a profitable practice. It will reduce cow numbers and the total amount of hay needed to get through the winter feeding period. It could also result in a little extra feed for the remaining cows and the receipts from marketing of the culls could be used to purchase feed for the remaining herd. A sensible approach to culling will result in an better cow herd with improved performance as well as improved feed utilisation.

Prof Neel says that a systematic, constructive approach must be in place:

Open cows: Barren cows offer no profit potential, and are a liability. During a feed shortage, these would be the first to be culled. Pregnancy diagnosis

Older cows: Older cows are less productive and have lower market values. Culling cows over 7-10 years of age will allow them to still fetch a respectable market price.

Cows with physical problems: Bad udders, bad eyes, lameness - cows with persistent physical problems should be culled before vast amounts of money are spent on reoccurring problems. These cows are likely to go down hill in production, condition and value. In good practice, methods to mitigate these problems should be in place.

Cows calving 'out of season': When feed supplies are short, these cows should be considered for the cull pen.

Late calving cows : Consideration should go into whether cows that calve late should be bred the following year. For producers trying to shorten the breeding season, culling these late calving cows would be helpful.

Poor producing cows: If records are kept well and up to date, cows that produce smaller calves, with a lower weaning weight will be able to be identified. If there are no records, take a look at cows with calves at foot.

Cows that lost a calf: When cows are wild and easily excited they may be culled, regardless of feeding situations. When the feeding situation is desperate, records should be consulted and cows that lost a calf may need to be culled.

October 2009
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