Winter temps and snowfall may be easier to predict with new technology, but making feeding decisions based on what's expected isn't always easy. You feed too much hay, some is wasted. You feed too little and cows don't have enough to stay warm.
Despite the internal discussion most ranchers have prior to a winter weather event, Shane Gadberry, associate professor for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, suggests the decision should depend on temperature, precipitation and the combination.
"Cattle are generally fine in the cold weather," said Gadberry, "However, when the weather turns wet, the situation changes."
Cows with a normal winter coat cope well with temperatures as low as 32 Fahrenheit and much lower for breeds that grow a heavy hair coat, Gadberry says, however, a wet coat increases a cows lower critical temperature to near 60 F, even though the cow has a winter coat.
Wind is an important factor to consider due to the windchill effect. Cattle producers aren't set up to keep cattle from getting wet during winter; however, wind breaks are beneficial.
Gadberry suggests grouping cows according to needs. Cows that are near calving should be moved to areas that provide easier care during severe weather. Research in Arkansas has demonstrated incidence of calving is associated with changes in weather conditions. Thin cows and lactating cows will have a greater demand for energy than fleshy cows that are in mid- to late-gestation.
Food intake can increase 5 to 10% in the winter, often making free choice access to hay necessary. Account for higher intakes when estimating how much hay to make available, he says.
In addition, feed higher quality hay. Hay that is greater in protein and total digestible nutrients will have more available energy and greater consumption compared to low quality hay.
A common rule of thumb for providing supplemental feed is 1% increase in energy intake for each degree below lower critical temperature. The challenge with wet cattle on a windy day with below freezing temperatures is that even with supplemental feeds, cattle will likely utilize body energy reserves to stay warm. Therefore, supplemental feeding should continue for a period of time after conditions return to normal, Gadberry recommends.
A common practice is to continue supplementing an equal number of days after the inclement weather ceases. For example, if supplement is fed for five days due to inclement weather, supplement will continue to be fed for five additional days.
Also, he says, water intake and feed intake are related. If cattle can't drink, this will affect their food intake and ability to cope with winter weather.
After the thaw, muddy conditions can affect food intake. In severe mud, food intake can be reduced by as much as 15 to 30%. This can affect restoration of energy stores after temperatures return to normal and the ground thaws. Make sure feeding sites are well drained, watch cattle feeding behavior to determine the difficulty in accessing the hay ring or feed bunk, and relocate feeding areas if mud becomes an issue.