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  • Sarah Harris-Christian

Ground Zero, Below Zero

Acknowledging cattle’s body condition scores when formulating winter feed and forage plans can give producers a step up going into the cold season. 

As the December wind cuts a cold chill through the countryside, cattle producers prepare for the arduous challenges brought forth by chilling temperatures and white precipitation. What some may perceive as a winter wonderland in fact substantiates a time of year that can drastically impact a cattle producer’s bottom line.

Battling the cold winter months is a feat Angus producers must face each year; however, many producers anticipate an amplified hardship in the coming months precipitated by multiyear drought conditions and forage shortages. Regardless of geographical location, producers can overcome the onslaught of considerable winter challenges with strategic managerial intervention, particularly through effective nutrition and animal husbandry.

“When we’re meeting the needs of our herd, we’ve got to think about what our operation goals are,” says Maggie Justice, University of Arkansas assistant professor and beef cattle extension specialist. “What are our goals, and where are our animals at in the production stage?”

Justice urges producers to determine if their herd needs to gain or maintain weight through the winter. Evaluating a herd’s body condition scores (BCS), Justice says, is the first step in understanding the nutritional demands of the cowherd during winter months. 

“It’s really important that we come through the winter as best we can and with as many cows in that 5-6 range,” says Karla Wilke, University of Nebraska cow-calf and stocker management specialist. 

Wilke says doing so is vital to ensure females can effectively raise the calf they were carrying or rebreed without issue. Alternately, pregnancy rate and immunoglobin colostrum intake of calves are also affected by a female’s BCS, Wilke says.

Though lactating and bred females are often at the forefront of producers’ minds during the winter, Wilke is quick to remind breeders of their “forgotten investment.” 

Herd sires play an important role in stamping the next generation. As such, Wilke says producers have a vested interest in maintaining bulls through the winter, especially given the incredible investment made during sire acquisition. 

Wilke says effective animal husbandry and nutrition play a massive role in herd sire maintenance during winter months. Windbreaks and proper bedding are imperative to prevent bulls from obtaining frostbitten testicles, which in turn could result in failed breeding soundness exams the following spring. Along with maintaining a 5-6 BCS, Wilke says effective management strategies “can certainly improve their longevity and the quality of semen that they are producing.”

Understanding the herd’s condition status at the precipice of winter enables breeders to make informed decisions about strategic feeding, supplementation and management, Justice says. Wilke advises producers to evaluate their herd’s body condition scores before calving, prior to weaning to determine if early weaning is appropriate after winter hardship, and post-weaning after the cows have had time to replenish weight as nonlactating females.

“Knowing what phase of production our animals are in, knowing their body condition score, and knowing about what their weight is is really going to help us in the long run when making these nutrition decisions,” Justice says.


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