Managing cows through the winter provides different challenges compared to managing those same cows during the growing season. With snow cover across most of South Dakota, cows should oftentimes receive supplemental feed to meet their nutrient requirements during late gestation and into calving season because forage available for grazing is limited. Supplemental feeds can range from hay, to cake, to distillers grains, or lick barrels. However, how can one be sure their needs are being met?

There are two simple tools producers should use on a regular basis to ensure the cow’s nutrient requirements are being met. The first is to monitor body condition score and the second is to monitor manure consistency.

Monitoring Body Condition

By monitoring body condition scores (BCS) on a regular basis you are evaluating trends in nutritional status through time, and can make appropriate management decisions. The most important question to ask is, “What condition are my cows in, and are they gaining, maintaining or losing condition?” The goal is to have cows in a BCS of 5 at calving on a 1-9 scale. A cow with a BCS of 5 is described as one whose “overall appearance is generally good”. Fat cover over the ribs feels spongy. Palpable fat cover is present on either side of the tail head. Supplemental feeds need to be added to the nutrition program if cows are losing condition and will drop below a BCS of 5 before calving. For more information on BCS, see Basics of Body Condition Scoring. If the cows are in adequate condition (BCS 5) and maintaining, no immediate changes are likely needed. However, if cows are in poor condition (BCS less than 5) or losing condition, management changes need to be made immediately. If the cows are in BCS greater than 5, the nutrition program is more than adequate, but one may need to evaluate the feed costs associated with this excess condition.

Manure Consitency

Manure consistency can serve as an indicator of forage quality and animal performance. The primary question this indicator can help answer is, “Do the cows need a protein supplement? If they are receiving a protein supplement, is it enough?” The pictures below show manure from animals that have excess protein (Figure 1), sufficient protein (Figure 2), and deficient in protein (Figure 3) in their diet.

Excess Protein

Manure patties similar to Figure 1 indicate a diet with crude protein greater than 10%. The center of the patty has a crater-like appearance. If there are small folds present around the edges of the patty, the crude protein content will be in the 10-13% range. No additional supplementation is needed for mature cows with manure of this consistency.

Figure 1. Excess Protein

Sufficient Protein

Manure patties similar to Figure 2 indicate diet crude protein is between 6 and 9%. This manure will have flat folds. As forage quality increases the folds become smaller. This manure indicates forage quality adequate to meet maintenance requirements for mature cows. Depending on the stage of production, additional protein supplementation may be required particularly during late gestation or early lactation.

Figure 2. Sufficient Protein

Deficient Protein

The manure in Figure 3. indicates diets with crude protein of 5% or less. These droppings have very distinct rings at the lower portion which tend to be firm. Manure from this forage quality tends to stack, but the rings are a true indicator of lower forage quality. This manure type indicates the forage is below maintenance requirements for all classes of beef cattle and that protein supplementation is necessary to increase digestibility and utilization of the low quality forage.

Figure 3. Deficient Protein

This is a simple tool to evaluate whether or not cows need to be supplemented or if your current supplementation program is working.

If cows are still grazing dormant range, it is challenging to collect a representative sample of the forage to determine quality. However, if the manure is indicating protein deficiency on low-quality forages, adding or increasing a protein supplement will increase the utilization of low-quality forages, especially this time of year. This will be beneficial to maintain body condition scores and meeting nutrient requirements.

If the cows are being fed supplemental hay, make sure it has been analyzed for protein, energy and mineral content. Hay quality varies from year to year, so what has worked in the past isn’t always going to work every year. Beyond that, because they are probably consuming a mixture of hay and forage grazed from pasture, monitoring BCS and manure consistency can ensure that nutrient needs are being met.

More Information

For more information on body condition scoring cows or monitoring manure consistency to determine supplementation needs, contact Adele Harty.