Five Things to Do to Improve the Efficiency of Winter Feeding This Year

Oct 20, 2022

By Dr. Katie VanValin

Undoubtedly, 2022 has had its fair share of challenges thus far. High input prices likely led to fewer hay acres being fertilized, which with the added pressure of drought, can lead to lower quality and quantity of stored forages moving into this winter. You might be in for sticker shock if you haven’t purchased feed recently. It can be easy to get caught up in things we have little to no control over, so here are five things we can do to improve this year’s winter-feeding program.

  1. Body condition score the herd: Calves should be weaned from the spring calving cows (or will be very soon). It’s easy to get caught up focusing on the weaning weight of the calves or managing a pre-conditioning program but don’t forget about the cows. Now is the time to assess the body condition score of the herd. Spring calving cows will have their lowest nutrient requirements of the entire year shortly after weaning the calf. Now is the time to efficiently add condition to thin cows to set them up for success during the 2023 breeding season. Sorting cows by body condition score can allow for more efficient herd management and for those thin cows to receive the extra nutrition they require without overfeeding them in adequate condition. It is much more challenging to add condition to cows as they approach calving or have a calf at side. The ideal body condition score for mature cows is 5, while targeting younger females to a BCS 6 can ensure they have the extra condition required to meet their additional nutrient requirements for supporting growth.
  2. Test your hay: This is something we always recommend, but in years like 2022, this becomes even more important. Hay tests provide valuable information about the energy and protein concentrations in the sample. All lots of hay should be tested, and a lot is defined as hay harvested from the same field on the same day and stored under the same conditions. Testing all lots of hay allows producers to match lots of hay to the herd so that the lowest quality hay is being fed when the cows’ nutrient requirements are the lowest while saving the best quality hay for when nutrient requirements are their highest. Feeding the right hay to the right cow at the right time can drastically decrease the amount of supplement required to maintain body condition.
  3. Evaluate supplement costs: At some point throughout the year, some supplementation is likely required to meet the energy and protein requirements of the herd. Using hay test results can help determine the most efficient supplement to match the energy and protein deficits in the hay. The University of Kentucky Forage Supplement tool is a simple-to-use online tool that provides recommendations for supplementation based on hay test results. Also, reach out to your local
    county extension agent or nutritionist to assist in interpreting hay test results. Now is the time to sharpen the pencil and determine which supplement options will be the most economical to pair with available forage. Remember, the feed that was the most economical last year may not be the most economical choice this year. Just because one feed costs more on a $/Ton basis does not mean it is the most expensive supplement to feed. The amount of a particular supplement required must also be considered.
  4. Feed hay efficiently: Regardless of quality, when the quantity of hay is tight, available hay stores must be fed efficiently. Research has shown that feeding hay in a hay ring prevents feeding waste, especially rings that contain a solid skirted bottom. Hay feeding pads and fence line feeders can also reduce hay feeding losses. While these measures will not completely reduce hay feeding losses, these losses can be reduced from 45% to as little as 6% by using hay rings. Moving hay rings or utilizing bale grazing can help to limit trampling damage around these hay feeding sites and help to distribute manure evenly across the feeding area.
  5. Stockpiling forages: Although nitrogen application can increase the amount of stockpiled forage available to graze during the winter, tall fescue can still stockpile even without a nitrogen application. Closing off certain fields during the fall growing season can allow the forages in these fields to stockpile, which can then be grazed during the late fall and early winter. While the nutrient quality of stockpiled fescue declines over time, nutrient content can remain adequate for supporting dry cows. Consider setting up a simple strip grazing system using temporary electric fencing to prevent trampling losses when turning cattle out on stockpiled forages.

Contact your local county extension office for more information about establishing an effective and efficient winter-feeding program.

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