Lessons learned from a winter of discontent



PHOTO: Matt Barton, UK Agricultural Communications Specialist
PRINCETON, Ky.

Kentucky cattle producers are finally getting some relief from the especially long, cold and wet winter.

“Shakespeare must have been thinking about caring for beef cattle this past winter when he coined those words about a ‘winter of discontent,’” said Roy Burris, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment beef specialist. “When spring arrived, we couldn’t help but feel some relief just to get past the tough winter weather. Spring calving cows and their newborn calves especially felt the wrath of ice storms, snow, cold and mud.”

But does the arrival of spring really put producers “over the hump?” Burris said, perhaps, but producers do have some pressing concerns.

Most cows need to improve body condition, so they will be able to sustain a pregnancy, and producers want to get cows bred in the next few weeks. Since feed was in short supply, most producers likely turned their herds out to grass as soon as it appeared, but lush, watery grass will not sustain milk production and weight gain.

“Producers need to continue to provide energy supplementation a little longer,” Burris said. “The goal is to have cows at a condition score of near 5 (ribs covered) at the start of the breeding season. If cows are not pregnant before extreme heat sets in (late June or early July), pregnancy rates will likely be very low.”

Burris recommended that producers continue to feed a high magnesium supplement until the soil temperature warms up.

“Don’t skip magnesium supplementation – regardless of what you read,” he warned. “Research conducted at the UK Research and Education Center in Princeton showed that 1.5 ounces of magnesium (22 grams) would prevent grass tetany in high risk situations. When it was left out of the mineral mix, grass tetany would appear as predicted. A mineral supplement with about 14 percent magnesium should be adequate with normal consumption.”

Producers should look at reseeding pasture areas that were trampled to the point of killing the grass. Weeds like pigweed (spiny amaranth) will encroach on high traffic areas.

Burris said the short term is not the only thing to consider.

“There are some long-term considerations, too,” he said. “Was this last winter an aberration, or a harbinger of things to come? Since cows and calves represent a substantial financial outlay and for humane reasons, we need to re-evaluate some of our practices and consider some changes.”

Producers could shift their calving season to the fall, when weather isn’t a problem to calf survival. Pregnancy rates and calf survival are generally higher in fall than in the spring. Even though feed costs are traditionally higher in the fall, it’s still a viable option.

Producers who decide to stick with spring calving should make every effort to be successful, and that could mean it may be time to consider more shelter or protection for cows and calves.

Windbreaks, natural or man-made, can be important since wind chill increases the energy requirement of cattle. Cattle depend upon their hair coats to keep heat in and cold out. When hair gets wet and flattens, it lets moisture get close to the skin. If cattle are wet, or the wind blows enough to separate the hair, they are more susceptible to cold. Thin, hungry cattle are even more vulnerable.

“We must, at the very least, increase feed, especially energy supplementation, during periods of severely cold weather,” Burris said. “Winter cattle care is probably the last thing many producers want to focus on right now, but we’ll be right back in that season before you know it, and this is a good time to get ready.”

Barns and feeding areas that protect cattle from severe weather and mud can be beneficial and environmentally desirable by managing manure and runoff. They keep cattle dry during wet, cold weather. Since newborn calves are the most vulnerable to cold weather, calving barns that have facilities and equipment for “pulling” calves and are cleanly bedded may also be helpful for spring calving herds.

“We don’t normally need a lot of housing for beef cattle, but things haven’t been normal lately,” Burris said. “This past winter tested our resolve, but it may have also pointed out some of the weaknesses in our programs. We want to keep cattle comfortable and healthy anyway, but increased cattle value gives us even more incentive to do just that. We can learn from the past, as we enjoy new grass and sunshine.”

Contact: 

Roy Burris, 270-365-7541

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