by: Darrell Rankins, Ph.D.
Alabama Cooperative Ext. System Animal Scientist

As the winter feeding period quickly approaches let's take a moment to evaluate some important points. As everyone is well aware of, input costs are extremely high. Thus, it is of utmost im- portance to make every dollar count. The following are a few topics to give attention to prior to the arrival of winter.

Culling. Any cow that needs to be culled should be taken to market right now, do not delay. With current feed prices and cull cow prices, it makes absolutely no sense to keep a cull cow through the winter months. All candidates should be culled: open cows, cows with a poor disposition, or any defects (teeth, feet, eyes, udders).

Hay feeding. First and foremost, in order to provide adequate nutrition to the cow herd in terms of both energy and protein it is important to have information regarding the quality of the hay being used. If hay quality is underestimated, then extra money will be spent on supplementation; whereas, if hay quality is overestimated then the cows will be short-changed and end up with decreased conception rates. Get your hay tested! The other major point is that too much hay is wasted. Knowing what your bales weigh and subsequently feeding about the right amount to the cows will reduce waste along with the prudent use of hay rings.

Winter grazing. Many beef cattle producers utilize winter annuals to complement their forage program. The question is, are they utilized in the most optimal way? Instead of umestricted access to the forage, what about limited access such that the high-quality forage becomes a supplement to the hay that you are feed- ing? Most producers base their winter feeding program on free-choice hay with the use of some supplements after calving.

Winter annuals typically contain 70 to 75 percent TDN (total digestible nutrients) and in excess of 20 percent crude protein. This makes an excellent supplement to hay because the energy in the winter annuals is in the form of very digestible fiber which does not reduce hay digestion. In addi- tion, the protein fraction is highly digestible. For much of the hay that is produced in Alabama, providing cows with five to seven pounds of supplemental dry matter from these winter annuals would provide adequate nutrition for a lactating cow.

The most efficient manner in which to provide this amount of dry matter per day is by limit grazing. Once six to eight inches of standing forage has accumulated we are ready to start utilizing it. Experience indicates that a period of about 1.5 to 2 hours per day is sufficient time for the cows to meet their needs. A good rule of thumb would be to remove the cows from the grazing as soon as the first cow starts looking for a place to lie down. Furthermore, this does not have to be a daily routine, similar results can be achieved with every other day access to the grazing. The time period may need to be slightly ex- tended with this option.

In the beginning, it will take some time to get the cows on and off of the winter annuals but in just a few days it will become a very routine procedure and the cows will meet you at the gate both coming and going. Establishing winter annuals can be costly and is quite weather dependent: however, the nutrition is excellent and the requirement for mechanized daily feeding is all but eliminated. The key to success is using limit grazing rather than allowing the cows continual access to the winter annuals. Keeping winter annuals grazed down to the ground is not conducive to maximum production. Obviously, if ideal growing conditions exist and forage production is exceeding animal demands, then by all means utilize more of the forage.

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