Twenty tips for winter feeding cattle

In an era of BSE and trade restrictions, predicting cattle prices can be difficult. However, by carefully managing herds, producers can optimize their profit potential.

Susan Markus, a beef specialist with Alberta Agriculture, says cattle producers can increase their profits by making a few changes to the way they maintain their herds.

Balance rations and test water

  • Test feed ingredients for moisture, protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus, at a minimum. If using silage, have pH tested: silage with pH over 5.2 doesn’t keep for long. Deficient protein and energy result in low birth weights or weak calves and poor milking cows. Excess protein and energy are expensive and wasteful.
  • Feed for the requirements of the cattle, not how much they will eat.
  • Conduct a chemical analysis of water sources every three to five years. Mineral imbalances in water can interact with feed nutrients.

Estimate feed intake

  • Feed intake will depend on feed quality, animal size and performance.
  • Heavily pregnant cows cannot eat as much as dry or newly pregnant animals. Older cattle eat more per unit body weight than younger cattle. Dry matter intake, as a percent of body weight, can vary from 1.5 percent on straw to 2.75 percent on quality alfalfa hay.
  • Newly weaned calves will have decreased intakes, so they need to be fed accordingly.
  • Cold stress on cattle may increase dry matter intake because it increases rate of passage.

Wasted feed

  • Type of feed and feed delivery affect the amount of feed wasted. Tub grinders and hay shredders may reduce length of feed. However, fine material, which is the higher quality, higher protein portion of the feed, may be lost and wasted.
  • Hay and greenfeed typically have a feeding waste of 15 to 30 percent.
  • Grain and pellets have a waste factor of about five percent.

Ionophores in rations

  • Rumensin and Bovatec are approved for beef cattle. Rumensin increases feed efficiency by eight to 12 percent, increases weight gain by five to 15 percent, prevents coccidiosis and decreases acidosis and grain bloat.
  • There can be a $2 to $3 return for every $1 spent on the ionophore. Bovatec is more expensive, but acts less like an appetite suppressant compared to Rumensin. Cattle must have an adaptation period of about five days, after which they can be fed higher recommended rates.

Limit feed

  • When mature cows are not under cold stress, limit-feeding can extend feed supplies.
  • Rumen capacity will adjust to the amount of roughage offered in a ration.
  • Meet nutrient requirements and adjust intake levels when limit-feeding cattle.

Emphasize condition

  • The high nutritional demands of late pregnancy make it difficult to put weight on thin cows. Feed intake of lactating cows is 30 to 50 percent higher than pregnant cows.
  • Feed cows to gain weight when they are not heavy in pregnancy and in the fall when it is cheapest.

Later feeding

  • Some research suggests feeding cattle later in the afternoon makes more heat available to them during and after digestion. This means the heat caused by feeding will be highest during the coldest part of the day.

Mineral imbalances

  • Winter tetany can be a problem if feeding only annual cereal crops such as greenfeed, silages and straw. Symptoms mimic milk fever. In the long run, supplemental minerals are cheaper than treating downer cows or lameness caused by mineral imbalances.
  • Supplement extra calcium and magnesium to offset effects of high potassium in annual cereal roughages.

Avoid abrupt change

  • High concentrate rations should be stepped up by no more than half a pound per head per day.
  • Grain added to high roughage rations should be introduced gradually. Start with no more than one-third of the ration as grain, such as 600 lb. feeder calves on 5.5 lb. of grain.
  • Grain needs to be fed daily. Alternate day feeding of grain at high levels can result in acidosis or bloat.

Limit oilseeds, fat sources

  • Maximum fat in a ration for beef animals is five to seven percent of the ration dry matter (tallow = 177 percent TDN). Oil or fat is an excellent energy source, but price and storage of product has to be evaluated.
  • Oilseeds such as canola at 25 to 35 percent oil or sunflowers will interfere with fibre digestion and lower methane production if fed at too high a level. For example, a1,400 lb. cow should eat no more than three to four lb. whole canola seeds.

Feeding canola

  • Canola roughage generally has high sulfur levels, which can reach 2.5 percent. Cattle require only 0.4 percent sulfur. Excess sulfur can result in polioencephalomalacia.
  • Dilute canola rations with low sulfur feed; high sulfur interferes with copper and selenium.

Test for nitrates

  • Test for nitrates if feed is suspicious, such as frosted greenfeed, heavily fertilized or manured annual cereal crops and heated greenfeed bales.
  • Greenfeed bales that are low in nitrates can be dangerously high in nitrites if they heat. Nitrate conversion to nitrite can be deadly.

Heated bales

  • If not high in nitrates, heated bales should be fed to cattle early.
  • Heated bales have less available protein and energy. Crude protein requirements increase as the fetus grows in the uterus. Match the quality of the feed to the cattle requirements.
  • With time and changes in weather, moulds can develop and increase. Mould can be just as harmful inhaled as it is when eaten.

Grain processing

  • Don’t process oats and corn for mature, healthy cows. Increased digestibility is at most 10 to 15 percent.
  • Process barley and wheat for cows if economics make sense. Increased digestibility is 15 to 25 percent. Do not process cereal grain for calves less than 600 lb. if intake is acceptable. Younger cattle chew feed more completely.

Snow as water source

  • Provide fresh water if feeding poor quality roughages to breeding females younger than three years old. Besides maintaining a pregnancy, first and second calf heifers are still growing, so protein and energy requirements are higher than mature cattle.
  • Snow is acceptable as a water source for mature cows and young cattle in good condition. Snow needs to be clean and not ice packed.

Urea in rations

  • Urea or other nonprotein nitrogen sources should be limited to half to one percent of ration dry matter. Too much of it results in increased blood ammonia levels. Cattle need to be adapted to urea over a 10 to 14 day period.
  • Low energy rations such as high forage and low grain result in low urea use because ammonia will be lost in the urine. Read labels on supplements because 32-12 protein supplements are better suited to low grain rations compared to 32-20, which is designed for high grain feedlot rations.
  • Do not feed urea to calves that weigh less than 400 lb. Their rumens cannot handle it.

Protein supplements

  • Protein is an expensive nutrient to supplement. If additional protein is not needed in the ration, supplement with only the needed nutrients. Certain products with protein, in addition to minerals and vitamins, are more expensive.

Bedding cattle

  • Winter bedding is not required if cattle have access to areas protected from the wind and are not wet, muddy and slushy.
  • Bedding is needed if cattle are in a dry lot and space is an issue or if clean snow is unavailable.

Salt sources

  • Have one source of salt fed free choice.
  • Mineral fed free choice and salt blocks free choice are a waste if put out together. Cattle tend to have either a salt craving or consume a product because it is sweet. If salt and mineral sources are separate, cattle may not eat required amounts of both. Rather, they will lick the salt and not the mineral.

Computer program

  • If using the ration balancing software Cowbytes, don’t underestimate cow weight or overestimate bale weights. There is up to 100 lb. difference in a condition score.
  • The 77 lb. default number for calf birth weight can be low for most herds. Typically, you should target for a calf’s birth weight to be seven percent of the cow’s body weight: 1,350 lb. cows having 92 lb. calves.
  • Lactation month affects energy requirements. Milk production peaks at 12 weeks after calving.

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