Researchers at the University of Missouri compared three typical methods of wintering beef cows. However, nobody has actually done the research, until now, to see if there truly is a difference in cow and calf performance between these “typical wintering methods.” The three methods included in this study compared, feeding only hay (HY), feeding hay with a supplement (HS) or feeding stockpiled tall fescue (STF) over a two-year period, during the winters of 2006 and 2007.

The hay in the HY and HS treatments was very typical of Missouri fescue hay; the crude protein (CP) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) were 7.7 %, 71.6% and 8.0%, 74.2% for year 1 and year 2, respectively. Needless to say, the hay was definitely on the low end of the quality scale, but is very typical in Missouri.

During August of both trial years, 40 lbs N/acre from ammonium nitrate was applied to the STF paddock treatment and allowed to grow until the start of the trials in November 2006 and December 2007. The STF treatment had pre-grazing nutrition levels of 11.8 % CP, 67.2 %NDF, and 36.2 % ADF, which was definitely higher in nutrition than the hay. STF was strip-grazed and the cattle were moved approximately twice a week. At the end of the winter grazing season the STF had decreased CP 7.4%, and increased ADF and NDF levels (the higher the ADF and NDF values, the lower quality the forage is), and still better nutritionally than the hay.

During year 1 of the trial, HS treatment cows were supplemented with 0.88 pounds of corn per day until midway through the calving season (March 16th) and then increased to 2.7 pounds of corn plus 3.2 pounds of dried distiller’s grains with solubles (DDGS) per day until March 27, 2006 (the end of year number 1). During year 2, cows in the HS treatment were supplemented with 2.4 pounds of corn and 2 pounds of DDGS for a total of 4.4 pounds per day of supplement, throughout the winter period, which ended March 26, 2007.

Basically, the results of the three treatments showed what producers could expect to see at home. The STF cows actually gained almost 50 pounds during the first winter while the cows on the HY and HS treatments lost 12 and 39 pounds, respectively. During year 2, cows on STF, HS and HY lost 114, 109 and 187 pounds respectively. One reason for the dramatic weight loss, in year 2, was the cold wet weather increasing their energy requirements. Snow and ice also decreased the accessibility of the STF, which could explain the average weight loss of 114 pounds.

When all was said and done, the STF and HS cows made it through the winter better than the HY cows. The HS cows seemed to regain their weight losses with spring grass. It is interesting to note in year 2 that the HS and HY cows had a higher incidence of calf death due to hypothermia and respiratory diseases. The researchers observed that the STF treatment didn’t have the mud problems that the other two treatments had. Cows and calves were constantly being moved in the STF treatment, which deceased the time they spent in wet and muddy areas.

After seeing the results of this particular research project, stockpiling fescue makes practical sense. Take advantage of the ample rain we have had this past year, add some nitrogen fertilizer to a hay meadow or pasture and invest in some temporary electric fence and you will not only have a great source of nutritional winter feed for your cows. The beef cattle market is in somewhat of a downturn this year, so make every penny count and wean as many live healthy calves as you can. This research project shows that producers can keep more live healthy calves when stockpiling, and that cows will winter better with that “old fescue” when it is fed right. Cows and calves will be more comfortable and do better over the course of the winter.

Source: Wendy Flatt, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist