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Column: condition of cows after winter feeding

The protein content of winter feed is important, says rancher David Zirnhelt

This fall has ended up being pretty good for the conditioning of cows going into winter. Because of the mild early winter, most ranchers are not feeding, hoping for a few more days or weeks of mild weather.

Smoke and dry weather retarded the regrowth of range, pastures and hayfields: the net effect is that earlier it looked like we might have had to feed early, eating into precious hay resources.

However, the prolonged mild fall and the moisture we have had has allowed a rebound in the growth of some pastures. You will find the odd cow out on its own having found some green lush grass to meet its feed needs.

The cold snap coming will probably bring them home looking for that winter feed gravy train.

Some agriculture writers are aware that processed feeds (hay, grain, supplements) are the largest expense we have as cattle producers. Our other resource, though, is the fat that the cows are carrying, which was stored up during the late summer and fall.

Some say that cows can lose up to 100 pounds of fat while on late pasture, which has low feed value. And, once the feeding of hay starts, the poorer hay with less protein and carbohydrate content can be fed for a while.

A cow needs higher protein during the third trimester of her pregnancy for the optimum growth of the calf. If the rancher is calving in mid-March then the good feed must come in mid-December (that is in two weeks).

On the other hand, if calving is in early May or June, then that good feed needs to be fed in February or March.

Whatever the feeding plan, the cow that is losing 100 pounds of fat during the winter will need to end up with a body condition score of three on a one to five scale.

Body condition scoring can be learned by online resources or by talking to experienced people like older ranchers and veterinarians.

Check out the research on this topic by going to the website of the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC). They have a lot of good research findings and you can sign up for their blog which will be sent to you when they post new or timely research on cattle management.

Before calving, cows need about 8.5 per cent protein, according to COWBYTES 532 software. (Alberta Department of Agriculture). Depending on the quality of the hay, supplementation of protein might be necessary to ensure a healthy calf and a cow that will get ready to breed all the while feeding the new calf.

Once she has calved, that cow will need just over 16 per cent protein in the feed. (Good alfalfa hay may be this high). Spring growth in pastures may be that high but early in the spring forbs (flowers) and shrubs (brush) may only contain less than seven per cent protein.

While it is ideal to have thrifty cows that thrive on what nature provides in our pastures, a low body condition score will dictate the need for supplementing.

It is the challenge to the business manager and good animal husband in us to seek the right nutritional balance for the job we are asking the animal to perform.

A young female bred and in calf (still growing herself) will need the best of feed if she is to cycle early enough to be bred again. That young calf takes a lot of nutrition from the mom.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher in the Cariboo and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.

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