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  • Sarah Harris-Christian

Evergreen Practices for Winter Forage Management

Making the most of hay and pasture distribution amid the onset of colder conditions can drastically impact an operation’s winter feeding plan.



As the temperature drops and winter precipitation blankets the cowherd, Angus breeders prepare to strap in for the cold season. The chilling monotony of winter feedings, breaking ice and muddy pastures is likely a chief concern among producers, especially with limited forage and feed supplies. Industry practitioners are aware of the heightened importance forage and feed distribution will play in making it successfully through the winter. 

“It’s something we need to think about — we can’t just assume that this is what we always do,” says Karla Wilke, University of Nebraska cow-calf and stocker management specialist. “Every year is going to be different, and we need to be cognizant of that.”

Winter feeding strategies can vary greatly, and Wilke says it’s important for breeders to remember each cowherd’s feeding needs will be dynamic. Access to water and sustenance is of utmost importance, and she says formulating cost-effective feeding strategies tailored to the herd’s nutritional needs is imperative.

“If we think about the needs of our mature, dry, nonlactating cattle, our forage is really going to meet them at the table,” says Maggie Justice, University of Arkansas assistant professor and beef cattle extension specialist. “We need to focus on making sure we are meeting these total digestible nutrients, or our energy needs for our animals, as well as our crude protein needs.”

 

The drawing board

Justice says there are four primary steps to take when creating winter feeding plans:

  1. Determine nutritional requirements of animals. Body condition scores (BCS) and stages of production greatly contribute to this understanding.

  2. Evaluate current forage base. Identify quantity and quality of available conserved forages and grazing resources.

  3. Match forage feeding protocol to meet animal needs, taking into consideration deficiencies. 

  4. Determine supplemental feeding needs.

One challenge associated with winter forage is the supply and nutrient availability of dormant range and stock residue for grazing purposes, Wilke says. As regrowth opportunities and nutrient content diminish with continuous grazing, supplementation of feed and alternate forage options become even more important factors to consider.

“What we’re assuming, when we put cattle on dormant native range or cornstalks in the winter, is that they do in fact have access to the feed that’s out there,” Wilke says. 

If challenges in forage availability persist, Justice says breeders should have a plan to counteract the shortage. 

Stocking rate and intensive grazing management are two factors Justice urges producers to consider. If forage availability is diminished, Justice and Wilke say early weaning and culling low BCS cattle can help lessen the burden. Tailored forage feeding methods, such as limited hay feedings, using dome feeders, and varying feeding location can alleviate forage loss while replenishing nutrients into the pasture. Given most operations lose approximately 28% of hay from storage loss, Justice says strategic feeding can help stretch the hay supply. 

Appropriate nutrition is key, and ensuring your cowherd’s needs are met can be indicative of their performance, Wilke says. Producers should ensure their total digestible nutrient and crude protein needs are met. Proactively investing in forage testing, Justice says, is a minor expense for an invaluable yield of information about forage nutritive quality. 

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