Ken Miller has been bale-grazing cow-calf pairs through winter the past four years on his ranch south of Bismarck, ND. “Two of those years we had about 100 in. of snow, and it still worked fine,” he says.

He usually put out a week’s worth of baled feed at different locations, moving the cattle to the next bunch of bales, rather than hauling feed. In the past four winters, Miller says he’s used less than 100 gals. of diesel fuel in his tractor to feed 100 pairs. 

“Some people think calves won’t perform well in very cold weather, but they do quite well when wintered with their mothers on hay. We wean in late March. Since we don’t calve until late May and early June, the cows have adequate time to recover.”

When the calves are weaned, Miller feeds them apart from the cows for a month, still bale-grazing. He just trails the cows home, leaving several older cows with the calves. He bands the bull calves and puts the calves back with the cows, so everything can be run as one herd.

“Calving in May and June limits a person to selling light calves if you’re marketing them in November. But if you leave them on the cows, run them on grass the next year and sell them in August or September, they’re a good weight, and you don’t have much feed investment in that animal,” Miller says.

He used to calve in February and March, wean calves in late October and background them, and sell them in January and February. But he realized he’d invested a lot of feed and fuel in them over that time.

A person sometimes has to adapt ideas to fit his own conditions, Miller says. “If you get locked into doing things a certain way just because that’s the way you’ve always done it, you’re liable to miss some opportunities.”

Following nature

Gearld Fry, an Arkansas stockman who has studied cattle nutrition and genetics for many years, says a calf develops a more efficient rumen if it can nurse from its mother until about 10 months of age.

“To become most efficient at digesting forage, a calf needs to stay on his mother so the rumen can develop to optimum potential. The cow’s butterfat enables the villi in the rumen to fully develop. If the calf doesn’t get the butterfat for 10 months, he is inferior in his digestive ability to what his genetics would dictate,” Fry explains.

Fry says no man-made supplement can equal what the cow will give the calf. “The dam’s milk is specifically designed for that calf.” And, he says, Mother Nature programmed cattle — like bison — to spend the first winter with their mothers.

“You can’t do as much for that calf as its mother can. Even at the expense of her body condition, you’re better off to let her feed her calf. If she isn’t calving again until May or June, it doesn’t matter if she loses 200-300 lbs. from summer weight. If she has 45 days of green grass before calving again, she will put on enough body condition to have a healthy calf, and rebreed within about 85 days,” he explains.

“In the lactating cow during the dead of winter, most of the fluid from her udder is butterfat,” Fry says. She is giving less volume than she would on green grass, but the quality is very high.

“Bison are the most closely related wild animal today to our cattle, with nine-month gestation. They have their babies in April or May, and breed back quickly. If we imitate nature and let the calf stay at Mother’s side through winter, all she needs is 45 days to dry off and prepare for the next calf with adequate colostrum, and then breed back,” Fry says.

Fry uses electric fence to creep-feed calves in winter. “I put a bale of my best hay where I can let the calves get to it and the cows can’t. The calf is old enough to be ruminating well by that time,” Fry says. Calves don’t need grain, but they do need good-quality forage.

“There are other ways to creep-feed a calf without using grain. A New Hampshire stockman has a 20-acre field of triticale for calves to graze. Even though it gets bitterly cold in New Hampshire, his calves do very well left on the cows.

“He gets a lot of growth on the triticale before freezing weather, and uses electric fence to keep cows out. The calves go under that fence to graze the triticale all winter. It is incredible how good those calves look. They had their mothers, and good grazing — the best of both worlds.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.


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