Cattle prices are good, feed is relatively cheap and most forage is not the top quality you would like for optimum animal performance. Those conditions all point to the economic advantage of feeding some supplement to the cows and calves you're wintering.

“If you're among the few farmers who still have 3 or more inches of fescue growth on your pastures, the need to supplement may not be as urgent,” says Eldon Cole, Livestock Specialist at the University of Missouri Outreach & Extension Center. “This type of fescue pasture, along with your average hay, should allow a pregnant cow to get along okay unless she's really thin, Body-Condition Score (BCS) 4 or less. It's rare that fescue even at this time of year doesn't have around 10 percent protein especially if there's some green material in it.”

When supplemental feed is mentioned, most people think of protein. Protein is needed when the hay is running around 8 percent or below for nearly all classes of cattle. Supplemental feeding to grazing cattle or to cattle running to self-fed hay supplies is not an exact science. You can do a better job, however, by spending $15 to $18 for a forage test. The test will also tell you about the energy level in your hay based on the fiber values .

Supplements come in all shapes, forms and sizes. The nutritive value of these various supplements differs widely but the biggest dollar variable may be in their convenience. For example, soybean hulls and corn gluten feed is less convenient to feed because it may require bunks and extra labor to provide it to the herd. The initial cost of the feed, however is low. In contrast, you might purchase a large lick block that costs a great deal more per ton. Cattle performance may not be much different on the two feeds, but cost of production will be higher if you pay too much for convenience

“Purchase feed wisely without paying too much for convenience,” says Mr. Cole. “The results of the extra feed will be stronger calves at birth, earlier conception following birth, higher lactation levels and for those wintering calves, better gains.”