Ranchers offer tips for maintaining gestating cattle in cold, drought | TheFencePost.com

Ranchers offer tips for maintaining gestating cattle in cold, drought

amanda radke for Tri-State Livestock News
A cow's lower critical temperature point is 32F, but if her winter coat is wet, that drops to 18F. WIndchill is also a factor and in creases the energy needs of the cow.
Lacey Namken |

Winter has swept across the Northern Plains and as the temperature drops, there are important considerations to keep in mind to avoid cold stress in the cow herd.

“With the winter weather coming in quite forcefully the last couple of days, the cows’ nutrient requirements will go up based on the temperature, windchill and hair coat,” said Taylor Grussing, South Dakota State University extension cow-calf field specialist. “For every 1 degree that the temperature is below the cow’s lower critical temperature point, her nutrient needs go up 1 percent just to meet her basic maintenance requirements.”

A cow’s lower critical temperature point is 18 degrees F, but if her winter coat is wet, she will reach that point in 32 degree F weather. Windchill is also a factor and increases the energy needs of the cow.

As gestating cows enter the third trimester of their pregnancies, energy needs go up, as well.

“Keep in mind that in the third trimester, the fetus is growing actively inside her,” Grussing added. “Meanwhile, her rumen capacity is slightly decreasing as the fetus grows. This occurs at the same time her nutrient needs are increasing. If producers are feeding low-quality forages, it’s recommended that they supplement with energy and protein during times of cold weather in order to maintain her energy needs and grow her calf.”

While many ranchers are battling snow and cold temperatures, others are still feeling the effects of the drought that is plaguing parts of South Dakota. With less hay around, some cattle producers are changing their game plan and feeding more supplement and less hay.


For Donn Hett of Buffalo, S.D., the drought has impacted his operation in a variety of ways — from number of pregnancies, to stocking rates, to weaning weights of his calves.

“We sold a load-and-a-half of heifers that we would have typically kept, as well as a load of cows due to the very little grass we have,” Hett said. “We don’t have much hay available to us around here, so we’re holding off on that as long as we can. With bare pastures and wondering what we’ll do next summer, it’s been pretty stressful.”

He added that his conception rates were lower this year, which he gathers is due to the drought and heat stress experienced during the summer months. As winter approaches, the Hetts have supplemented the cow herd with 2 pounds of 30 percent protein cottonseed cake daily, and he hopes to maintain their body condition scores through the remainder of their pregnancies. He doesn’t plan to offer any hay unless the snow cover gets really heavy.

“Calves are half of what they were worth a year ago, and hay is double the amount this year,” Hett said. “It makes it tough to figure out a game plan, and knowing that pastures have very little subsoil moisture and no cover, spring could bring some extra challenges for us, as well.”

The Hetts will maintain the cow herd on pastures all winter and are hoping for some moisture to arrive in early spring.

“If we can get some spring rains, we’ll deal with the mud during calving; it’s a lot easier than handling a foot of snow right now,” he said.

“Given the dry conditions that many ranchers are dealing with, we strongly recommend having the hay tested to determine the quality of protein and the total digestable nutrients (TDN) that’s available in them to know exactly what is being offered to the cattle,” Grussing said. “Whether it’s heat stress or cold stress, these can both effect fetal development, mainly because nutrients aren’t as abundant in those times of high stress situations.”


Cows are quick to adapt to different environments, and for Jared Namken, owner and operator of Namken Red Angus located near Lake Norden, S.D., it’s business as usual during the cold winter months.

“In our neck of the woods, we don’t have access to a lot of grass hay, so we try to graze corn stalks for as long as we can into the winter months,” Namken said. “Even with the 8 to 9 inches of snow we received last weekend, the cows are still going out and hunting for feed.”

The Namkens rely on tree belts for the cows to hunker down next to when the wind whips across the countryside. A heated electric waterer is close by to ensure the cattle are getting enough water.

“We work with a nutritionist to make sure our ration is balanced using the feeds we raise ourselves,” said Namken, who has a stockpile of alfalfa hay, wheat straw and corn silage on hand to utilize through the winter months. “We do purchase a balancer mineral product that we offer to the cows. As calving gets closer, we adjust the ration again to better meet the needs of the cows, but we don’t start until March, so right now, we aren’t too worried about late gestation needs during this cold weather.”

In lieu of bale feeders, he prefers to roll out hay bales in the field for the cattle.

“It gives the cows plenty of exercise and helps from a manure management standpoint, too,” he said. “All of our hay and feed is tested for nutritional value, as well as mold and yeast. This helps us formulate our ration and offer what the cattle need during different times of the year.”

Grussing added that hay testing allows producers to accurately calculate rations while also determining the exact cost per pound of nutrient.

“SDSU extension has hay probes available for producers to use,” Grussing said. “The one I use hooks to an electric drill, and we have ranchers take 10 to 20 core samples from their hay and submit them to our hay testing labs. It’s $15 to $20 for the basic test, which looks at protein and total digestible nutrients. A more detailed test looks at more detailed mineral content such as calcium, phosphorous and selenium and costs roughly $75.”

To calculate the price per pound of nutrient, Grussing said to take the price per ton of hay and divide by the dry matter content and again by percent TDN in the forage to come up with the price per pound of actual energy.

“When determining the type of feed to supplement, it’s good to calculate based on the price per pound of TDN or price per nutrient,” she said. “This is very important because distillers may look like they’re more expensive when compared to a lick tub, but if you compare on a pound per protein basis, the distillers end up being more affordable.” ❖

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