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Cold spells hard on feed supplies

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As ranchers head into late winter, several are noticing a significant drop in their feed pile as a result of recent cold spells. If the current weather trends continue into spring many producers will need to purchase additional feed to maintain their cattle.
“Management has been altered to reduce winter feeding as much as possible and this year snuck up on us,” comments UW Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley.  He adds that, to date, he hasn’t heard of any problems, but everyone is feeding more than they want and are starting to look at their hay pile, wondering how severe the remainder of winter is going to be.
“Everyone has hay now, but if this continues through late March it will be tough,” say Paisley.
According to Paisley, cattle require a one percent increase in feed for every one-degree drop in temperature below 20 degrees. This is assuming livestock have a heavy winter coat and are in adequate condition.
If the temperature with wind chill is negative 10 degrees, cows require 30 percent more feed to maintain a constant weight than they do when the temperature is over 20 degrees. When this amount is combined with the 25 to 30 percent increase in energy requirements during late gestation, it’s easy to see why so many hay piles are rapidly disappearing.
While cattle will increase intake as temperatures drop, Paisley notes that they hit a point where they just hump up and kind of stop eating.  
If ranchers aren’t covered by snow and cattle have access to winter range or stalks, supplementing is an easy thing to aid cattle in increasing consumption.
“In a lot of cases the cheapest thing is to locate some alfalfa hay and we’re lucky that most of the state put up a lot of hay this year. There is hay available and people are starting to buy and feed it,” says Paisley.
Some ranchers may let their cattle slide until spring, which is something to which Paisley strongly objects. He explains that it takes a lot more feed and effort to bring a cow back up to an acceptable body condition than to simply maintain her at that level.
After a cow calves her energy requirements jump another 30 to 35 percent through the peak of lactation. If a rancher attempts to bring her back up to a more acceptable condition at that point and the weather is uncooperative it could result in an even greater supplemental feed increase or she may not breed back.
Paisley explains that data indicates thin cows are slower getting up after calving and calves consume less colostrum on average than those out of well maintained cows. He adds that it is also suggested the strength of the calf is compromised if cows get too thin during gestation.
An increase in feed consumption generally results in a higher break even on cattle and that is what feeders are dealing with during the cold spells. Extension Education and Livestock Marketing Specialist Bridger Feuz explains that while the market hasn’t been impacted by recent weather trends, it is effecting the break even as cattle increase intake.
“Typically severe storms can affect markets as they may alter the projected finish date of cattle. However, cold weather does not necessarily impact performance of cattle on feed,” states Bridger.
Cattle will require more energy to maintain body levels in a feedlot as on the range. The difference is that feedlots typically have large amounts of feed readily available and can easily adjust rations to offset weather conditions.
As producers head into the second half of winter it is important to be prepared for more unexpected cold snaps and have a means meeting energy requirements available. Compare prices on different supplements and keep in mind that it is almost always easier to maintain cattle than to bring them back up to an acceptable condition, experts advise.
For more information on this topic see the Guest Opinion on Page 2 of this edition. Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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