Building cow’s body condition score now helps them thrive in winter weather |

Building cow’s body condition score now helps them thrive in winter weather

Some producers supplement their cows and bulls with hay during the winter months when native range nutrition is on the decline.
Photo by Teresa Clark |

Fall may be the best time to prepare spring calving cows for the cold winter months. Maintaining beef cows in an average body condition score can help them persevere through extended periods of cold weather, according to Rick Rasby, who is an associate dean of Extension and a University of Nebraska Extension beef specialist.

A cow’s body condition score is like an insurance policy or risk management strategy, he said. “If the cows are in average or better body condition, they can withstand cold temperatures easier than thin cows.

Now is the time to evaluate cow body condition, and make improvements before cold weather hits, according to University of Nebraska Extension specialist, Aaron Berger. “If the cattle are in poorer condition going into winter, they may not be able to handle the cold as well.” .

The most economical 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 said. “She doesn’t have a calf nursing her, and the calf inside her is very small and taking in very little, in terms of nutrients. I would encourage ranchers to try and get their cows back into condition after weaning. With nutrient requirements lower, cows need less to maintain themselves and should be able to regain or even add body condition quickly.”

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, and is already thin,” Berger said. “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, the nutrient requirements will be more during the winter months than if they had gained some condition prior to winter.”


Building back body condition will hinge on what feed resources are available. Meadow regrowth, crop residue like cornstalks or wheat stubble, distillers grains, and cake can help cows gain weight and improve their body condition. “Producers may also want to keep in mind that some forage quality is going to be in the lower quality range, so they may need to supplement it with an energy source,” Berger said. “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.”

Some of the cheapest feed resources could be dry distillers grain, or wet distillers grain, if the producer is close enough to the plant. “It is one of the most economical feed resources available,” Berger said. Late this summer, distillers could be purchased for $100-$110 a ton. Even with $40-$50 in shipping added on, it could still be economical, especially if it is fed with limited hay, straw or corn residue.

Producers can also consider ammoniating wheat straw, which increases the protein and digestibility, and can make it comparable to a grass-type hay. Berger said it can be fed with high-energy feeds like corn silage or dry distillers, or packed like silage. “It can be used as part of the winter diet, if the right feeds are available to compliment it,” he said.

Rasby cautioned producers that if it gets cold enough, they may not be able to feed enough additional energy to maintain their cows, if the cows are in too low of a body condition score. “There may be times you can’t feed enough corn to give them the energy they need to withstand the cold,” Rasby said. “In really extreme cold conditions, the cows won’t be worried about eating, they will be focused on trying to stay warm and get to shelter to stay out of the cold. If it is cold for an extended period of time, I would feed extra energy, so they don’t lose weight.”

If producers calve in March, and have their cows in a body condition score of five or better, they should be able to manage for inclement weather, even if the cold weather is prolonged over several days, he said. “They may just need to feed some additional energy.”


Ranchers also 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 will increase significantly,” Berger said. “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 the wind is cold. If producers have tree shelter belts or man-made shelters like bales, canvas or tin, the additional energy needs of the cow will be reduced when cold weather hits because she is protected from the wind. “Tree windbreaks or shelter belts work really well,” Rasby said. “But, make sure they are designed so the cattle don’t bunch up in cold weather. Also, if you plan to use it during calving, make sure there is enough room for all the cows so they don’t trample the calves.”

For producers without natural protection, Berger said 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.

One easy method of building a windbreak is using bales that are stacked around corrals, and can be fed later in the spring. Berger said 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 urged producers to try and gauge how serious the storm will be and take precautions ahead of time. “If the storm will be bad, have the cows full, especially if feed will be hard to get to,” he said. Cattle should also be moved to an area with protection. “If they are in good condition going into winter, they will have some cover on their back and be able to withstand bad weather,” he added. ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at


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