The fall is coming to an end and for most farmers the crops are harvested, the calves weaned, and cows are preg checked. This is a great time for farmers to make plans for the winter for the cow herd and if you take the time now to plan how to feed cow herd this winter, this can pay dividends in the spring and summer. So here are some simple tips to help winterize the cow herd.
- Body condition score your cows. Weaning is great time to body condition score your cow herd. If you didn't get this done, its not too late to do this before there is snow on the ground. After the calf is weaned, this is the period when a cow's energy requirement's are her lowest and cows can easily gain body condition during this period. Therefore, for your young and thin cows this would the most economically time to put on some body condition prior to winter and calving. One of the most mismanaged groups of cows in the herd is the young cows (3 to 4 years old) and can often be overlooked and farmers should pay close attention to energy reserves of these cows. By feeding your cows now to have a body condition score of 5 or 6 calving could pay dividends in the upcoming breeding season, since body condition score at calving is highly correlated to postpartum reproductive performance. Video on body condition scoring of beef cattle by Purdue University Beef Team
- Conduct a forage test on winter feeds. This can be valuable information to determine a winter-feeding strategy. This allow producers to match forages to right stage of gestation and age of animal. Energy and protein intake of the cow during gestation is critical not only to her performance but the development of the calf. If cows do not intake enough protein or energy, this could lead to weak calves at birth, postnatal health problems, or poor growth performance. On the other hand, with rising feed costs farmers cannot afford to overfeed their cow herd. By knowing the quality of the forage, you can determine intake of feed instead of the cow, which will in turn save on feed expenses. Video on tips for forage sampling by Iowa State University Extension
- Make culling decisions. The easiest decision is to cull those cows and heifers which are determined open in the fall. Farmers can be tempted to give cows and especially heifers one more chance, but with rising feed costs can you afford to keep this unproductive females in the herd? There are several other factors to consider when making culling decisions. Unsound udders, lameness and poor mouths should enter the culling list. These could significantly impact the performance of the cow in the coming year. Disposition is another important factor in making culling decisions, not only for your safety but these cows can pass these traits to their calves and the calves are typically lower performing.
- Decide on heifer replacement strategy. After making culling decisions, you can determine how many replacement heifers you will need. But some important questions to ask first are: Can you afford to develop your own replacement heifers? Or would you be further ahead to purchase bred heifers to replenish the herd? The heifer calves are another challenging group to manage in the cow herd, especially in small herds. This decision to keep or buy heifers is dependent on several factors such as current and future market prices, herd size, facilities, available labor, and economics. To decide what is the best strategy, producers should develop budgets and management plans for each option. For more information: Buying vs. Raising Replacement Heifers by Jason Cleere
- Estimate your winter feed needs. Now you have made the decision on what cows are being culled, how many heifers you plan to keep, and what is the quality of your feed resources, this will allow you to design your winter feeding strategy. First estimate, your winter hay needs and determine if you have enough forage on hand. If you estimate you are short on forage, the fall can be a more economical time to purchase feed than later in the winter or early spring. This is also a good time to purchase grains or by-products to stretch your winter forage supply. Reducing winter feed costs can have a significant impact on the profitability of a cow/calf operation, so planning a head can be beneficial to the bottom line. Tools to help: Estimating Hay Needs Calculator by University of Wisconsin Extension.
These are some simple tips to plan for the winter ahead for your cow herd, which can save time and money in coming months. If you would like more information on the tips outlined here contact your local extension agent.