BEEF Daily

Winter Feed: Do You Have Enough To Feed Your Cows?


Glenn Selk, OSU animal scientist, offers tips on how to estimate forage needs for cattle.

Yesterday was my 26th birthday, and lucky gal that I am, my husband Tyler bought me a trailer load of bred cows for my big day. I was too tired for dinner and a movie anyway, after spending my birthday tearing down and replacing fence in some old lots we have in order to get them winterized for these spring-calving cows.

While we worked, Tyler was calculating numbers in his head -- how many extra tons of hay we’ll need, how early our first cows will be calving, and how many days we have left to finish up our projects before the snow flies.

As we crunch the numbers and double-check our feed resources to make sure we have enough hay to feed our cows through the winter, there are a few important factors to think about. This includes just how much a gestating cow will eat and the quality of forages we have on hand.


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With winter just around the corner, I’m sure most of you are well along in stockpiling your forage resources for the cold months ahead. For those of us still winding up the process, here are a few key considerations to think about, courtesy of Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension animal scientist.

Selk says that estimating forage usage by cows is an important part of the task of calculating winter feed needs. "Hay or standing forage intake must be estimated in order to make the calculations. Forage quality will be a determining factor in the amount of forage consumed. Higher-quality forages contain larger concentrations of important nutrients so animals consuming these forages should be more likely to meet their nutrient needs from the forages. Also cows can consume a larger quantity of higher quality forages," he says.

Selk explains that higher-quality forages ferment more rapidly in the rumen leaving a void that the animal can refill with additional forage. "Consequently, forage intake increases. For example, low-quality forages (below about 6% crude protein) will be consumed at about 1.5% of body weight (on a dry matter basis) per day. Higher-quality grass hays (above 8% crude protein) may be consumed at about 2.0% of body weight. Excellent forages, such as good alfalfa, silages, or green pasture may be consumed at the rate of 2.5% dry matter of body weight per day. The combination of increased nutrient content AND increased forage intake makes high quality forage very valuable to the animal and the producer. With these intake estimates, now producers can calculate the estimated amounts of hay that need to be available.  

“Using an example of 1,200-lb. pregnant spring-calving cows, let's assume that the grass hay quality is good and tested 8% crude protein. Cows will voluntarily consume 2.0% of body weight or 24 lbs/day. The 24 lbs. is based on 100% dry matter. Grass hays will often be 7-10% moisture. If we assume that the hay is 92% dry matter or 8% moisture, then the cows will consume about 26 lbs./day on an 'as-fed basis.'

"Unfortunately we also have to consider hay wastage when feeding big round bales. Hay wastage is difficult to estimate, but generally has been found to be from 6% to 20% (or more). For this example, let's assume 15% hay wastage. This means that approximately 30 lbs. of grass hay must be hauled to the pasture for each cow each day that hay is expected to be the primary ingredient in the diet,” Selk says.

In addition to these considerations, we must also consider mineral needs, and determine if the protein available in our alfalfa and mixed grass hay will be enough for these cattle, or if we need to add a supplement program to the mix. Hopefully we’ll have it all figured out by the time the snow flies. 

How about you? Do you have enough forage resources on hand, or will you need to purchase more? What’s the cost of hay in your area? Do you supplement with mineral during the winter months? How does your ration change as the cow enters her final months of gestation and after calving? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 8

Rocky Top Gelbvieh Farm (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2013

Cost of hay is high, about $100 per ton. We have 75 acres of stockpile grass to start grazing tomorrow, with 50 cow herd. We supplement with minerals to balance Fescue. Cows are expected to make it through on this and hay when the grass runs out. Hay quality low due to wet curing spring.

on Nov 14, 2013

First off Happy Belated Birthday!!!!! As far as feed here in Texas hay seems to be plentiful in my part of East Texas therefore the price is reasonable. We had two down cows two yrs ago and vet came and gave them IV's in the field and suggested that we feed or offer mineral supplement year round. So we started offering 12-12 mineral supplement and have not had down cow due to tetany again so far. We supplement our hay in winter with 20% range cubes and we keep out a 30% protein syrup tub also. We seem to have enough hay stocked for winter. Have a great day and may God bestow peace and harmony to you and your family. Gary

W.E. (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2013

Gary, hope you are planning to allot your fescue to your cows a little at a time by strip-grazing. If you haven't done this before, you can consult Jim Gerrish's writings for ideas on how to accomplish this so that your cows get enough fresh forage each day to do them some good for as long as possible. Fescue stockpiled for winter grazing will go farther toward insuring good health for your cows than anything else you can offer them. Add some clover, and it will be even better. Certainly the 12-12 mineral will be helpful, but, assuming that it is 12% calcium and 12% phosphorous, be sure it also contains enough magnesium to offset any problems you might have with tetany, which is caused by a deficiencies in Mg and/or Ca. Here in the Lower Midwest/Upper South region, winter grazing problems with tetany often come when grazing green wheat, especially when it begins fast growth in the milder days of late winter and early springtime. About twenty years ago, we lost some cows to wheat tetany, including some of the best producers, which was a real heartbreaker. On our farm, when we stopped using artificial nitrogen fertilizers to boost early wheat growth, the tetany problem also stopped. About fifteen years ago, we began using various winter annuals including turnips or winter kale, cereal rye, Italian or annual ryegrass, plus legumes like crimson clover or vetch in addition to wheat. A mixture of winter forage varieties makes a better cover crop to boost the feed value of crop residues, while building soil fertility and organic matter for successive crops. Green legumes or brassicas growing among the grasses give cows a choice and will help prevent tetany problems. East Texas ought to be a good place to try this approach. You should be able to graze year 'round there most winters.

Susan Bird (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2013

In Washington State the hay averages $200/ton for low quality hay, $250- $280 / ton for quality alfalfa. We feed mineral supplement with selenium, and an average 27-30 lb of hay / day / cow. As the cows near Calving, we make sure there is free choice supplement and the quality of feed is higher, In fall we feed on pasture until killing frosts stunt pastures, then dry fields of summer fallow dry land, and start feeding in November a grass/alfalfa mix hay and supplements. We calve in March-April. This year we are currently stocked in Hay for winter needs. Supplements will be purchased soon.

Peter Franzky (not verified)
on Nov 14, 2013

Happy Birthday Amanda! have a very blessed year.

Brenda from Dwyer's Farmhouse (not verified)
on Nov 15, 2013

Happy Belated Birthday! Guess what. My birthday is tomorrow and my hubby also just bought a trailer load of bred heifers. Pick up day is tomorrow and I have to go....because he has to work. He was teasing me that he bought them for my birthday....he had just read your post!

Joe Paz (not verified)
on Jan 28, 2014

I have 2 steers and wondered how much to feed them because they want to be fed often.

on Nov 20, 2014

Happy Birthday, Amanda! Gosh a truckload of bred cows-how practical!

We are set up to calve in April and feed straight grass hay prior to the last trimester of cow pregnancy. In January we will switch to alfalfa/grass mix hay. Our grass hay came off our own fertilized hay ground and our Alfalfa/grass mix was purchased of a local hay shaker for $140/T. We use a mineral supplement year round but our cows have to make it on a forage based diet with no supplements and breed back to produce a strong calf every 365 days. As we enter calving, our pastures are producing good grass and we turn out our new pairs on that as it becomes available. This minimizes our use of the more expensive purchased hay and increases our bottom line. Our steers are averaging about 675 at weaning with the heifers about 25 lbs behind that weight.
We plan on 1.5-2T of grass hay and 1 T of grass/ alfalfa hay per cow but we generally have some carry over depending on when we start feeding. This year we had a very dry fall and we are in a cold snap and our calves are a couple of weeks from market so we are probably ahead of where we would like to be depending on the rest of winter.
Our philosophy is that you cannot starve a profit out of cow and feeding well to keep body condition allows the cows inherently strong immune system to keep her and her future calf in good shape for early spring calving.

This works for us

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

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