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Range ecologists recommend delaying turn out of cow/calf pairs

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The majority of producers across the West agree this winter has been one of the toughest they’ve ever experienced. 

Following years of drought – which has led to a decrease in the quality and quantity of hay stocks on many operations – this winter came in strong with early and persistent snow storms, frequent below-zero temperatures and constant high winds. 

“Drought followed by early snow and cold temperatures resulted in short feed supplies, most of which was fairly low quality, and many producers have used up the harvested feed they planned on using to get them through the spring,” says Karla Wilkes, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) cow/calf systems and stocker management specialist, during a UNL BeefWatch podcast, in which she discusses her March 1 article “What does the drought of 2022 mean for lactating pairs in the spring of 2023?” 

Because feed supplies are running short, many producers have started planning on turning their pairs out earlier than usual. However, Wilkes notes range ecologists highly advise against doing this. 

“Range ecologists are actually recommending delaying turn out to give grass a chance to recover from the hard-hitting drought conditions of last summer,” Wilkes explains. “I realize a lot of folks won’t want to do this, but the soil moisture is in a deficit due to months of below-normal precipitation the past couple of years, which will have an impact on grass growth this spring.” 

Meeting nutritional needs

If producers do decide to heed this advice and wait a few extra weeks to turn out their pairs this spring, Wilkes emphasizes the need to feed a diet to meet the needs of both the cow and the calf.

She notes energy requirements for cows – typically measured in total digestible nutrients (TDN) – increases over 50 percent from late gestation, when the fetus is rapidly growing, to peak lactation, generally eight weeks postpartum. 

“Nutrient requirements really start to peak about 60 days after calving. So, if we have a cow calving in mid-March, on the 15th for instance, and we want her to stay on a 365-day breeding cycle, she will need to get pregnant 80 days later, or around the first of June,” explains Wilkes. 

In a normal year, cows turned out on green grass would have no problem meeting these higher nutritional needs. However, producers will need to consider ration options if they delay turn out and keep their pairs home in a confinement setting. 

Ration options

Wilkes notes a popular question among producers is if saving their best hay and increasing winter supplementation will work to get pairs through the spring. 

To answer this question, she explains if producers feed a 1,400-pound cow 28 pounds of high-quality hay, with a 58 percent TDN and 13 percent crude protein (CP), in addition to 3.5 pounds of 20 percent protein cubes, the cow’s protein needs would be met, but the energy provided in the ration would fall short and cause the cow to lose weight.

“This year, a lot of cows are pretty thin, and they don’t have the extra body reserves they may normally have this time of year,” she says. “Therefore, using extra body condition as an energy source while deferring grazing may not be an option for some cows.” 

Instead, Wilkes recommends feeding a total mixed ration (TMR), especially if producers have a way to grind and mix it themselves. She notes local Extension personnel can help producers develop specific rations with the commodities they have.

“Adding some wet ingredients, like silage and distillers’ grains, helps moisten the ration and keep it together, which increases consumption,” she says. 

“An example diet for a lactating 1,400-pound cow would include 19 pounds of residue or poor-quality hay, 17 pounds of silage, 26 pounds of wet distillers’ grains and a mineral package per cow, on an as-fed basis,” she adds, further mentioning although this diet will meet the cow’s needs, it is also somewhat limited in dry matter intake.

“So, producers will want to provide at least three feet of bunk space per pair to provide all cows and calves an equal chance at the feed,” she continues. 

Considerations for calves

As cows reach peak lactation, their nutritional requirements skyrocket, and Wilke shares nutritional requirements for calves will also increase as they move from a diet consisting exclusively of milk, to adding some forage and water. 

“If producers hold off on turning their pairs out until June, a March-born calf would be three months old, and by this time, the calf will be eating at least one percent of its body weight in forage on a dry matter basis,” she explains. “Eating forage and drinking water is critical for rumen development.” 

Therefore, she says a 300-pound calf would eat about six pounds of the TMR she explained above. 

“Another option producers might consider is providing a creep gate to allow calves access to their own TMR in a different pen or use a creep feeder with commercial creep feed,” she says. “When doing this, it is important for producers to keep in mind calves will actually eat at both locations, and they need to account for it when creating their ration.”  

Lastly, Wilkes notes in a confined setting, calves will be exposed to a higher pathogen load than those out grazing on pasture, which requires producers to keep a closer eye in order to catch illnesses before they get out of hand. 

“Calves living in confinement really need some space away from cows, in order to reduce pathogen load. They also need easy access to water and a windbreak or shelter to get out of the elements,” she says. 

“Producers who are planning to confine pairs to defer grazing may want to consult their local veterinarian to develop a herd health protocol and a nutritionist to develop diets with available commodities appropriate for confined pairs,” she concludes. 

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

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