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Winter supplementation for the Wyoming cow/calf producer

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Wyoming cow/calf producers must make decisions on how to effectively supplement their herds when forage quality is low and requirements are elevated. 

During crucial periods of the beef cow’s production cycle in late gestation and early lactation, available forage will likely be deficient in protein, energy or both, while her nutrient requirements are at their peak. 

For spring calving systems, this critical time period commonly lasts from December through April.

Supplementing livestock

Supplementation may be accomplished by feeding the animal directly with cake pellets or offered to animals as a free choice block or liquid. Emphasis on costs should be compared on a price-per-pound of crude protein (CP) basis instead of on their price tags alone. 

Although forage quality and supplement costs represent the primary decision-making criteria, there are many other additional factors that must be considered such as regional availability of the supplement, frequency and amount of supplement offered, available labor, method of delivering the supplement and associated costs with supplementation such as fuel and equipment usage.

If labor and equipment are available in an operation, hand feeding a supplement allows for rapid consumption during short periods of time (i.e. cakes, soybean meal, distillers’ grains, etc.) is likely the most feasible option. Hand-fed supplements are typically affordable and are likely to be consistently consumed by each animal. 

Several studies have shown supplements can be offered as infrequently as once every four to seven days due to the ruminant ability of the animal to recycle nitrogen to satisfy microbial requirements. 

If labor and time is limiting in an operation, large quantities of self-fed supplement options offered periodically through lick tubs, blocks, etc., are likely the most feasible option. 

Self-fed supplements are convenient as they save labor and use of machinery. However, cost per pound of protein with self-fed options are usually more costly when compared to hand-fed options. It should be noted not all cattle will consume controlled amounts of the supplement over extended periods of time. Several studies have noted significant variations in individual animal intake of self-fed supplements.

Completing a forage test

To determine a viable supplementation strategy, a forage test should first be completed. Unless the base forage test is more than 10 percent CP and more than 60 percent of total digestible nutrients, the hay alone is not likely to contain enough protein and energy to meet nutritional needs during the winter and early spring. 

A routine analysis on a hay sample typically costs less than $20 and will provide information needed to make a supplementation program.

Whether supplementation is self-fed or by hand, it can be a great tool for improving grazing distribution. Strategically placing supplements in areas of infrequently grazed pasture could increase total useable area and potentially increase animal units per month. 

Supplementation during the late winter and early spring is especially important for spring calving cow/calf operations in Wyoming. 

An operation’s ability to determine the most efficient way to deliver supplemental protein and energy will help with long-term sustainability.

Chance Marshall is a University of Wyoming Extension educator based in Fremont County. He can be reached at or 307-332-2363. 

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