Building winter cattle rations without wrecking your bottom line

Improving your feeding efficiency and reducing waste 
can help you save money overwintering your cattle this year

cows feeding
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Despite record-high cattle prices and strong demand for beef, margins remain tight for cattle producers who are battling the high price of land and feed.

But cattle feeders can widen their margins as they head into winter by taking measures to improve feed efficiency and reduce waste right now.

“To prepare your cattle for winter, the biggest thing is to make sure they’re fat enough or have enough body condition so that they’re not skinny going into winter,” said Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

Fat provides insulation, he said, and a cow that’s 200 pounds lighter than she should be at this point of the season needs an extra 1,400 pounds of hay “not to gain weight, just to keep her warm over the winter,” said Yaremcio.

“At five cents or six cents a pound, that’s $90 of cost that you’re going to have to incur just because these cows are a little bit skinny going into winter.”

If the cow’s short ribs are showing, “wean the calves early” and put them on a grain/hay ration, he said.

“If the cow can have 40 to 60 days of good grazing or three to four pounds of grain supplement a day before it gets cold, she should be able to put on that extra 200 pounds to get her back into the shape she needs to be in.”

A balanced ration will also keep the cow in good condition heading into winter while improving feed efficiency — and saving some feeding costs. The first step in the process is testing the feed, said Yaremcio.

“Take samples of the hay from different fields, and if you’re using greenfeed, take samples out of the bale using a forage probe,” he said, adding that using a probe is “more accurate than taking a grab sample.”

“If you’re using a swath-grazing method, you probably want to go to 10 or 15 locations throughout the field and pick five to 10 stems or complete plants out of the swaths, compile them together, make a composite sample, and send that in.”

Once the feed results are in, “that’s when the work starts,” he said.

“How do you combine the different feeds? How do you use a combination of hay or straw or greenfeed? What kind of minerals do you need to make sure your calcium/phosphorus balance is right?”

CowBytes — software available through Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development — can help balance those major nutrients and micronutrients.

“Basically, you put your cow information in and the feed test results into the program, and you just punch numbers to balance the ration so that everything matches the requirements,” said Yaremcio.

Reducing waste

But improving feed efficiency is only one piece of the equation, he said. Reducing feed waste can have a big impact on the bottom line, and that starts with proper feed storage.

“There’s a number of different ways to stack hay when it comes off the field,” he said. “Some people use the pyramid method, but that’s probably the worst way to store hay.”

When stacked in a pyramid, moisture that accumulates on the top of the bales will seep down through the stack, causing spoilage in every row.

“Anywhere a bale touches another one, that’s where the spoilage occurs.”

The best way to store hay is in a row aligned with the wind, he said.

“If you’ve got a northwest/southeast wind, you want to stack the bales in that direction so that when the wind blows, it blows all the snow out from between the rows,” he said, adding the rows should be at least three feet apart with six inches of space between each bale.

Feeding methods can also create waste. Bale feeders cause between five to 13 per cent waste, while simply unrolling a bale on the ground creates about 14 per cent waste. Using a bale processor or swath grazing causes up to 20 per cent waste.

“When you’ve got the cows walking all over the feed or tramping onto the product that’s been put out by the bale processor, they’re working the fine material — the stuff that’s got the high protein, high energy, high calcium,” he said.

“That material is being pushed into the snow, and 75 per cent of waste from a bale processor or from an unrolled bale is typically that fine material.”

As feed waste increases, nutrients in the feed also drop.

“The quality of the feed drops a lot faster than what the physical waste is, and then they’re getting a poor-quality ration,” he said.

“If you have a hay that was 11.5 per cent protein when it was baled and fed to the cows, by the time you take the waste factor into consideration, they’re only getting about 8-1/2 to nine per cent protein for the feed that they’re actually consuming.

“The on-paper ration versus what they’re actually consuming are two different things completely.”

Yaremcio recommends using a bunk-line feeder or a portable bunk feeder to reduce the waste caused by bale processors, but producers need to find the best fit for their own farms.

“Each farm has its own situation and management techniques that it uses.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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