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The onset of winter: Preparing for winter alleviates stress in cattle

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many ranchers understand it is never too early to start planning for winter. With drought conditions impacting North Dakota and parts of South Dakota and Wyoming, producers should start locking down their winter feed supply, according to University of Nebraska Extension Specialist Aaron Berger.

Producers in drought impacted areas are looking farther for winter feed, and hay supplies are being gobbled up, he says.

Cattle condition

Now is also the time to evaluate cow body condition and make improvements before cold weather hits.

“If the cattle are in poorer condition going into winter, they may not be able to handle the cold as well,” Berger says.

The best time to improve the body condition score of a spring calving cow is after weaning and prior to winter.

“The cow’s nutrient requirements will be extremely low,” Berger explains. “She doesn’t have a calf nursing her, and the calf inside her is very small and taking very little in terms of nutrients.”

“I would encourage ranchers, even if feed is expensive, to try and get their cows back into condition after weaning,” he says.

With nutrient requirements lower, cows need less to maintain themselves and should be able to regain body condition quickly, he points out.


Ideally, a cow should be in at least a body condition score five going into winter.

“A cow that has the right body condition will stay warmer and be able to manage herself better than one in a body condition score four that is already thin,” he says.

“If the cows are still in good condition prior to calving, producers can use the extra fat on the cow’s back later on as a feed resource. But if the cow is in poor condition, her nutrient requirements will be more during the winter months than if she had gained some condition prior to winter,” he notes.

Building back condition

  Building back body condition hinges on what feed resources are available, Berger says.

Meadow regrowth, crop residue like cornstalks or wheat stubble, distiller’s grains and even some cake can help cows gain weight and improve their body condition.

“Producers may also want to keep in mind that some forage is going to be lower quality, so they may need to supplement it with an energy source,” he says. “I would encourage producers to shop around and see what low-cost energy source can be found that will allow those cows to gain some weight.”

“Put a pencil to what can be purchased most economically,” he adds.


Bulls also need extra care prior to winter weather.

“Any marginal bull or bull with some age or disposition problems should be culled, so it doesn’t have to be fed through the winter,” Berger says.

Young bulls that are 18 months to two years old have had a tough summer in many areas and will need some attention.

“Oftentimes, ranchers finish with the breeding season and kick these bulls out into the back pasture,” he explains. “If forage quality is low, those bulls aren’t going to regain much condition without some supplemental feed.”

Berger says the bulls should be fed some supplement in the pasture or put in a corral and fed.

They can also be put back with the cows after pregnancy checking, so all the cattle needing condition can be fed as one group.

Like cows, Berger recommends mid-five for an ideal body condition score in young bulls.

“They are still growing, developing and trying to mature. They need good nutrition to help them reach their mature size,” he explains.

Body condition in bulls is evaluated similar to cows, except they may not be as quick to deposit fat.

“Don’t let bulls get overly fat,” Berger cautions. “Going into winter at a 5.5 to six would be adequate. The extra condition can always be used in the spring, but if the winter is tough, it can help bulls manage the stress of the cold.”

Protection during storms

Producers need to think about providing adequate protection for their cows in the event of bad weather.

“For every degree the air temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the cow’s nutrient requirements increase significantly,” Berger says. “It is important to have an area where the cows can get out of the wind, so they can use those nutrient requirements to maintain themselves.”

Cold, wet conditions can be detrimental to cattle. If the cows are wet, combined with cold winds and low temperatures, they have a harder time maintaining their thermal body temperature, which causes them to use more nutrients to maintain themselves.

Natural protection, like trees, creek bottoms and topography, can make a significant difference when the air temperature is low and wind is cold.

For producers without natural protection, Berger says many types of windbreak are available, from panels with windscreen on them, to portable systems that can be folded out and easily moved.

Windbreaks in a horseshoe or semi-circle design can also help combat winds.

Building windbreaks

One easy method of building windbreak is using bales that are stacked around corrals and can be fed later in the spring.

Berger warns this type of windbreak may need some type of snow fence built behind it to help catch heavier snows before it comes over the bale windbreak and piles up.

If a major snowstorm is predicted, Berger urges producers to try and gauge how serious the storm will be and take precautions ahead of time.

“If the storm will be bad, make sure cows are full, especially if feed will be hard to get to,” he says.

Cattle should also be moved to an area with protection.

“If cattle are in good condition going into winter, they will have some cover on their back and be able to withstand bad weather,” he adds.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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