While warm summer temperatures make the challenges of icy, frigid weather seem far away, now is the time to make the preparations that will minimize those wintry challenges. Dave Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension beef veterinarian, along with several ranchers from various locations, offer this top-10 list of strategic management practices to secure herd health and lower input costs this winter.

  1. Take inventory of available forage

    With escalating feed prices, the cost of feeding the cowherd is a huge issue, Smith says. Cattlemen need to take stock of available feed and forage sources and what will be needed to get through the winter months.

    “It's been a tough year with high input costs due to fuel and feed prices,” says Kevin Hafner, vice president of operations for Express Ranches, Yukon, OK. “It's important to be aware of opportunities to lower costs. Cattlemen need to be flexible in their winter supplement programs.”

    This year, Hafner will focus on feeding mostly forage. Economically, alfalfa and high-quality legumes will be looked at as a bargain in comparison to feeding grain to the cowherd. Cattlemen should look to the value of grazing residual crops if the opportunity is available.

  2. Forage analysis

    Smith says now is a good time to complete a forage analysis to ensure the nutritional requirements of the cowherd are met.

    “A nutritional analysis can help cattlemen decide what feed to provide to which cattle and when,” Smith says. “By evaluating the body condition score (BCS) of cattle, we can make decisions on sorting cattle into different groups based on caloric-intake requirements.”

    Smith says it's critical to maintain a moderate BCS score post-weaning so cows don't have to play catch-up in late January and February. This will help the cowherd weather the cold winter months and add up to huge savings in input costs.

  3. Up-to-date vaccinations

    Convenience isn't a good reason to vaccinate your cows, Hafner says.

    “Too often, I see producers who give their annual shots when it's convenient for them,” Hafner says. “However, the convenient time isn't always the optimal time for the cattle.”

    Hafner's calves are on a vaccination schedule with the last round of respiratory shots given two weeks post-weaning. Hafner prefers post-weaning shots over pre-weaning shots administered in the pastures because there are less health and stress problems on the calves and less labor.

    Smith isn't an advocate of fall vaccinations, as this is not the optimal time to protect cows during pregnancy, and it generally means cattle receive killed rather than modified-live virus (MLV) vaccines. However, Smith says that today's market offers effective MLV vaccines that are safe to give during gestation, but only if the cow has been exposed to the vaccine in the previous 12 months. Smith adds that this is the time when cattlemen should consider giving vaccines for calf scours to immunize the cow so she can later protect her calf.

  4. Parasite control

    Although protocol varies for ranchers in diverse locations, monitoring parasite load is critical when preparing for the winter months.

    “Deworming is probably the number-one issue concerning herd health,” says Arnold Wienk, owner of Wienk Charolais in Lake Preston, SD. “We've found that deworming results in heavier weaning weights the following year, and the cows stay in better condition.”

    “Lice is another problem that affects animal well-being, along with facility damage caused by itching cattle,” Smith says. “The cost of external parasites due to lost performance can sometimes really hurt cattlemen.”

    Smith says it's vital to design a strategy for controlling internal and external parasites. Depending on your location, cattlemen have to target different time periods for strategic deworming. Smith suggests consulting your veterinarian before implementing a new program, as it should be tailored to the operation.

  5. Pregnancy examinations

    For pregnancy examinations, the earlier the better, Smith says.

    “Completing pregnancy exams early gives cattlemen the opportunity to have an idea of the staging in a cow's gestation,” Smith says. “This can be useful for planning ahead in your upcoming calving season and identifying open and short-bred cows to be sold.”

    Wienk agrees that pregnancy exams just make financial sense: “It costs too much money to keep an open cow around for a year.”

  6. Marketing cull cows

    Maximizing the residual value of cull cows is always difficult, Hafner says.

    “It's never the same answer from year to year,” Hafner says. “However, this year we have seen prices for cull cows as high as ever.”

    While Smith concurs that the equation for selling cull cows differs annually, he says it will be particularly important this year to cull open, late and poor-producing cows. “Cows bred late might not be profitable for you, but a marketing opportunity may be available as these cows could have more value in someone else's cowherd. Producers should be aware of marketing options for cull cows,” he says.

  7. Caring for herd bulls

    Herd bulls are a big investment. Take care of these investments by sorting off the bulls, maintaining clean and dry bedding, and feeding younger bulls during the winter months to help them recuperate from a long summer of breeding, Wienk says.

    For Hafner, monitoring the BCS of the herd bulls is a huge concern. “We pull our bulls away from the cowherd on July 1,” Hafner says. “Once isolated, it's paramount to monitor bulls' BCS, as they often get too fat if they only do spring calving.”

  8. Replacement heifers

    It's important to pay close attention to the replacement heifers right now, Hafner says.

    “We'll start breeding the heifers shortly after Thanksgiving,” he says. “Planning and management is key. We focus on our attainable goals to stay ahead of the game and get those heifers bred.”

    Smith offers another consideration for bred heifers and cows. “Think about the locations of your pregnant cowherd and replacement heifers in relation to other cattle that could expose them to disease,” Smith says. “Be aware of cross-fence exposure from stocker cattle and neighboring cowherds that could present risk for pregnant cows to abort. A safe location is critical during gestation.”

  9. Health verification pays

    For some cattlemen, there's opportunity to add value to their cattle with health verification, and now's the time to start the process, Smith says.

    “Cattlemen have the opportunity to test for various diseases through fecal and blood samples,” he says. “If a producer is working on a disease-control program with his veterinarian, now may be a convenient time to test and use that information to decide how to reduce the risk of the disease prior to spring calving.”

    What's more, testing for disease and earning a clean health verification status may add value to your calves when it's time to market. Plus, it's a relief to know you're proactively managing the health status of the herd, Smith adds.

  10. Anticipate adverse weather

    Wienk knows from experience how unforgiving South Dakota winters can be. His approach is to prepare for the worst and have a backup plan for adverse weather conditions.

    “During rough blizzards, water sources can freeze over, feed can be hard to deliver to cows and places for shelter aren't always accessible,” Wienk says. “It's so important to have your feed sources close to the cows. Be prepared to haul feed, water and provide shelter. Build windbreaks if trees aren't available to use. What's your back-up plan?”

Amanda Nolz, BEEF intern, is a senior South Dakota State University agricultural journalism student from Mitchell, SD.

Winter checklist

  1. Take inventory of available forage

  2. Forage analysis

  3. Up-to-date vaccinations

  4. Parasite control

  5. Preg-check cows and heifers

  6. Market culls

  7. Monitor herd bulls

  8. Manage replacement heifers

  9. Herd-health testing

  10. Prepare for adverse weather