It can be easy for cow-calf operations to underfeed or overfeed. But by having a basic knowledge base, producers can increase profitability and lower reproduction complications in their herd.

Woolsey cassidy
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho
Cassidy is a contributing editor to Progressive Cattle and Progressive Forage magazines.

Winter feed accounts for roughly 40 to 50 percent of the total cost of producing weaned calves, says Dale Blasi, beef cattle nutrition and management extension specialist at Kansas State University.

The proper amount of feed and the nutritional value it provides is vital to producing and maintaining a productive and economical cow herd. There is more to it than simply tossing hay on the ground; if not done properly it can cost the producer unnecessary dollars or even a cow’s ability to reproduce the following year.

“It pays to pay attention to each cow’s individual needs, especially now with drought conditions across some states and high cattle prices. You don’t want to waste feed or lose the overall value of the animal,” Blasi says.

Body condition scores help prepare for winter months
It is important that the cow goes into the fall months in good condition, Blasi says. The severity of the winter ahead can’t be determined. But a good-conditioned cow is a protection against harder winters.


If a cow doesn’t receive adequate nutrition or is in poor body condition, it will be difficult for her to come in heat in the spring.

The producer can use body condition scores and the cow’s age to evaluate and separate cows into different pastures based on nutritional needs. It can be a good management practice to group cows based on dietary needs if possible, Blasi says.

Some cows are still in the growth stage, while older cows may be missing teeth. It is important the producer considers these different factors and then makes arrangements to feed accordingly.

This will help producers limit the amount of harvested forage wasted while still providing an adequate amount of feed for each cow’s needs.

“It is easy to overfeed because producers understand the relationship between body condition and reproductive performance,” says Rick Rasby, professor and extension beef specialist at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. “Sometimes cows will put on condition when grazing, which is OK. But putting them above optimal condition with harvested forage is not economical.”

Rasby says he often sees cows that range from 4 to 7 in the body condition category. The ideal body condition score for a spring-calving cow herd at calving is 5, while a first-calf heifer should meet the 6 standard because she is still growing and developing.

Economic impacts of overfeeding cattle
Overfeeding cattle can have a huge effect on your pocketbook, Rasby says. It is important producers pay attention to body condition scores to determine if their feeding program is meeting the targeted condition score at specific times in the cow herd’s production cycle.

Tim Marshall, a cattleman in south-central Kansas, has started to incorporate different feeding practices in an effort to better manage his commercial and registered Angus, Gelbvieh and Balancer herd.

After attending multiple body condition score clinics, Marshall has learned to formulate rations based off of weight. He uses the body condition scores to look for changes that need to be made within his operation.

“Learning to estimate weight has been a huge eye-opener for me. I was off almost every time on particular cows. The bigger middle-body cows will fool you,” he says.

Body condition scores have helped Marshall lower feed costs and incorporate other practices into his operation. He has started weaning calves earlier to reduce overall costs and conserve body condition.

He has eliminated the guesswork in feeding and has learned to feed precisely and according to the cow’s needs.

Rasby says when cattle are overfed or allowed unlimited access to harvested forages, forage is wasted. It is trampled on, used for bedding and overconsumed. About one-third of the forage is wasted when cattle are allowed unlimited access to harvested forages. Cattle will waste less when they are limited to their daily recommendation.

Management practices to consider
There are management tools and practices that can be used to reduce waste, but it depends on the operation and its location. Producers can decrease the amount of trampling and feed wasted by leaving big spaces between rows of hay when it is unrolled for feeding.

When hay rows are too close together, cattle feed off one row of hay and stand and defecate on the other row of hay that has been rolled out.

Feedbunks or inverted tires are another way to reduce feed loss and are a good tool for some operations but also require more equipment. Some producers use grinding as a method to mix and match forages of different prices and quality to meet the cow herd’s nutrient needs throughout the production cycle.

This method increases handling and cost. Money will need to be invested in extra equipment for this feeding management strategy. The payoff would be less feed wasted and lower feed costs because of being able to mix and match forages of different prices.

Underfed cattle and productivity
On the other hand, producers must be careful not to underfeed their cattle. If a cow is underfed, it can have a negative impact on her reproductive performance and the calf’s health.

If she is at a less-than-optimal body condition score at calving, the amount of immunoglobulin is reduced, which the calf needs to be protected from diseases. Immunoglobulin and the quality of colostrum are important in the first stage of the calf’s life. The lack of immunity can be a big factor in calf diseases and economic loss in cattle.

“Even though cattle prices are high, so are fuel, feed and labor prices. This topic is always very important, especially for cow-calf operations,” Rasby says.

Whether it’s to improve herd productivity or to improve economic return, winter feeding is a practice all beef producers need to self-evaluate annually.

To help producers meet their herd’s nutritional needs and daily recommendations, Rasby has outlined a list of things to consider when planning for winter feeding.  end mark

Use body condition score, and the cow’s age to separate cattle into pastures based on nutritional needs. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

Winter-feeding preparation 101

  • Body condition score at least a couple times a year, especially at weaning time for spring-calving herds, and make any needed feeding changes by at least 90 days before calving to get cows in optimal body condition.

  • If feeding harvested forage, probe those forages in the fall and have it analyzed for nutrient content.

  • Understand the nutrient need of cows during mid-gestation, late gestation and during lactation.

  • Using the forage analysis, determine if energy or protein is needed.

  • Take steps to meet any nutritional gaps and price feeds on a price per nutrient, usually price per pound of energy (TDN) or price per pound of protein.