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KSU experts discuss thin cow management strategies through winter months

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With winter in full swing and spring calving season right around the corner, Kansas State University (KSU) Cow/Calf Extension Specialist Dr. Bob Weaber, KSU Professor of Production Medicine Dr. Bob Larson and KSU Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) Director Dr. Brad White sat own for an episode of KSU’s BCI Cattle Chat to discuss six management strategies for thin cows.            

Evaluating changes

            The first and second strategies on the list, which seem to go hand in hand, are evaluating body condition score (BCS) multiple times a year to assess any changes taking place as well as knowing current BCS of individual animals and the herd in general.

             “Going out, physically looking at our cows and determining BCS is a low tech, low cost practice and critical tool during winter months,” states Larson. “It is important producers are diligent about going out multiple times a year and really assessing body condition in their herd.” 

            Larson notes when doing this, producers should be assessing individuals as well as the overall herd.

            “In any group, we expect variation in condition, but ideally, we want almost all of our cows to be in a moderate body condition. And, if they are, then we know we are managing the group pretty well,” Larson says. 

            In order to track and document changes in BCS, Larson suggests producers take pictures when they go out to make a BCS assessment.

Understanding why thin cows are thin
            If producers do notice thin cows in the herd, the experts say the third strategy is to evaluate the situation further to see if there is a pattern tied to the thin cows’ age or access to feed.

            “Producers need to identify commonalities among problem animals so they can determine a proper management strategy,” says Weaber. 

            “Maybe they are all the same age or they all came off of the same summer range,” adds Larson. “Either way, it is helpful to know in order to make future decisions.” 

            Additionally, the three experts agree thin cows may be the result of limited access to feed.

            “The number of thin cows in the herd will creep up if, for example, they are getting pushed out of the feed bunk and not getting the protein supplementation they need,” says Larson. 

            “If producers only allocate a foot and a half on a single-sided feed bunk, big cows will push out thinner, smaller cows that really need the feed,” Weaber adds, noting a good practice is to allow for a two foot minimum of bunk space per head, while also placing the bunk in the middle of the pasture so it can be accessed from all sides.

Segregating or culling

            Once producers determine some possibilities as to why their cows are thin, they need to create a plan to add condition back to their cows or make culling decisions. 

            “Segregation is a really powerful and effective tool because it allows us to feed thin cows differently and more efficiently,” notes White. “If thin cows are placed into a smaller group, they can be fed high-quality supplements a producer might not otherwise invest in for the whole herd, and they won’t have to compete as hard for bunk space.” 

            White further notes the problem with segregation is it isn’t always convenient. 

            “The challenge may lie in where cattle are located and the ease of separating them for feeding,” he says. “Although, producers may want to hold off on segregation until cows are closer to home and easier to sort, I really encourage them not to delay. The sooner they can put weight on their thin cows, the better.” 

Calculating rate of gain, formulating a ration

            After separating thin cows from those in better condition, the experts agree it is important for producers to calculate a rate of gain from present time to calving in order to create an effective supplementation strategy.

            They point out March and April calving herds have about 50 to 80 days, respectively, to put a little more condition on their cattle, but if producers wait too long it will be too late. 

            “Do the math,” advises Weaber. “If producers have 100 days until their calves will start hitting the ground and they assume they can put on around two pounds per head her day, their cattle might be able to gain a couple hundred pounds. If they have 30 days at two pounds per day, they might see their cows gain 60 pounds. It really depends on what they need.” 

            Weaber continues, “When formulating an optimum ration for thin cows, producers need to remember thin cows have a higher cost of requirement because they have to do more work to stay warm. The bottom line is producers need to figure out how many thin cows they have and why they are thin. The answer to those questions will ultimately affect the decisions they make and options they have available for getting them caught back up on body condition.”

            Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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