Designing a management protocol that will adequately take care of the cow herd and not break the bank means traditional thinking may be as outdated as that old rusted-out farm truck most try to hold together one more year.

Every outfit has a winter program, depending on region of the country and readily available resources.

However, getting cows through the winter in good shape, ready to calve and breed back, more than likely will depend on how well ranchers have prepared those cows to handle management.

“Whether you are going to graze corn stalks or stockpiled forages, getting cows prepared for winter is a must for any system,” says Dr. Aaron Stalker, a beef range specialist at the University of Nebraska.

“Make sure those cows have a better-than-average body condition score (BCS) going into winter. It’s a lot easier to do that in favorable temperatures,” says Dr. Robert Wells, a consultant for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma.


Timely management decisions may start preparing the herd for winter. Deciding when to wean calves could be a “make or break” decision for most operations trying to limit the amount of harvested forage or purchased feedstuffs.

Watch for weaning

“Weaning date is a major factor in preparing those cows for winter,” Wells says. “Nutrient requirements are reduced drastically when you dry that cow up.

This has to be done before it gets too cold to give that cow a chance to put back on BCS. If you take the opportunity to let her add BCS and that fat layer before winter hits, she will handle the conditions a lot better and be cheaper to maintain.”

“If you’re going to take advantage of stockpiled forages and other lower-quality feedstuffs to get cows through the winter, weaning date is very important,” Stalker says.

“Wean those calves in a timely manner where you can add BCS to those cows before it gets too cold or their nutrient requirements increase. It’s not easy to gain BCS when nutrient requirements change on poor-quality forages.”

Stockpiled forages

Utilizing available stockpiled forages is something cattlemen in northern and southern climates are taking advantage of to decrease that winter feed bill.

Planning ahead and designing a grazing system will help ranchers utilize what the summer months can produce without investing extra dollars into hay equipment that may not be needed.

“It’s less expensive to allow that cow to harvest that deferred pasture or the hay meadow,” Stalker says. “Defer a pasture during growing season to stockpile for those cows during winter months.

If you’re on a rotational system, just skip that pasture during the summer months. This can sometimes be hard to do because ranchers may want to utilize that high-quality forage.”

“Any time you can stockpile forage and allow that cow to be your hay baler, you don’t have to tie up capital in equipment,” Wells says. “Bermudagrass or native pasture that has been deferred until after first frost make good alternatives to feeding expensive harvested forages or grain.”

Taking advantage of other forage resources during the winter months may also help cheapen that cost on a per-head basis. According to Stalker, corn stalks are an underutilized resource.

“Corn stalk grazing is a valuable resource, and it is underutilized for the most part,” Stalker says. “Corn stalks are a really good complement to a summer grazing program. Stalks are higher-quality grazing than winter range.”

Low-quality forage resources, like stockpiled forages, may not be the perfect winter feed program but can be economically supplemented.

Identifying byproduct or co-product feeds could be a place for most ranchers to start. Most will agree, in about any business, there are those firms that make sound, economical decisions – and those firms that are cheap.

“With stockpiled forages, the winter feed bill often depends on the cost of supplemental feed,” Wells says. “There are economical alternatives.

I encourage producers to price feed per pound of nutrient, not just the total cost of the ration. The nutrient requirements will change drastically on those cows as they get into the last trimester because of fetal growth. Byproduct feeds do a good job of supplying enough protein and energy to meet nutrient requirements.”

“Distillers grains are a good complement to grazing cattle. They are a good source of protein and energy, but they don’t limit fiber digestion,” Stalker says.

“Feeding distillers by themselves may or may not be the thing to do, sometimes adding them to some other low-quality forages for best results.”

Stocking and calving

Stocking rates and a controlled calving season should also help prepare cows for winter. Nutrient availability and production stage are very important to properly managing cattle through the ups and downs of the winter feeding period.

“Correct stocking rates are very important,” Stalker says. “For cattle stocked at 45 grazing days per acre on corn stalks, there is no economical benefit to feeding those cows supplement. They will gain BCS, but you won’t get better conception rates or have more pounds at weaning.

“Forage quality will change quickly if cattle are overstocked, because they will graze the better plant parts first. Cattle grouped in a tight calving interval provide many benefits; however, limiting waste by not overfeeding or underfeeding those cows based on nutrient requirements will help efficiency.”

“If the cow herd is synched up into a tight calving interval, producers can efficiently and economically manage those cows. Most operations are wasting or losing a lot of money by not having a controlled calving season,” Wells says.

“If your pastures are overstocked, forage will disappear quickly and producers will have to rely on feeding hay or other expensive alternatives.

Modestly stocked pastures may actually be more profitable. It’s a difficult concept for most, but net profits may be higher selling fewer calves.”

Winter storms are just part of the business. Fortunately, today’s weather analysts are sometimes better at predicting storms, though sometimes they still have trouble predicting how much or how long conditions will persist.

Being prepared for winter is the first step, but extended cold spells can be hard on the budget. Having cattle in the right BCS and not over-reacting to that winter storm could go a long way toward having cattle prepared to handle harsh conditions.

“Make sure cattle are in pastures with good shelter belts and have somewhere to get out of the wind. Feed a little extra ahead of the storm depending on how bad it’s going to get,” Wells says.

“This will allow for increased fermentation, which will help increase her core temp during winter weather events. It’s just hard sometimes to figure out how long these things will last and how many days to prepare for.”

“You have to be prepared to get through winter storms if you’re grazing stalks or stockpiled forages. Most over-react to snow because a cow can still graze in as much as 6 inches of dry powder.

With ice or hard snow, it’s a different story. Cattle cannot get through to the forage below; therefore we have to substitute the entire diet with hay and other feed,” Stalker says.

“It’s very hard to predict how many days we’re going to have to feed hay or other supplements. Most of the time we’ll move cows to stalks in October or November, and it’s a challenge to know what weather patterns are going to do.

Winter storms can be an issue whether cows are grazing a cornfield or stockpiled forage; we have to be prepared to take care of them.”  end mark

Clifford Mitchell is a freelance author based in Oklahoma.