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What plans are you making for feeding the beef cattle herd this winter?

October 30, 2015

What plans are you making for feeding the beef cattle herd this winter?


Folklore enthusiasts state there were spoons in the persimmons meaning we will be shoveling snow this winter.  Climate experts are predicting a strong El Nino, and for southern states, this corresponds to a cooler and wetter winter.  The current winter forecast for the southern one-half of Arkansas is cooler and equal chances of a cooler, normal, or above normal temperature for northern Arkansas.  As far as precipitation, the prediction for Arkansas is equal chances of above normal, normal, or below normal precipitation.  According to the National Weather Service in Little Rock, the last 7 El Nino winters in Arkansas resulted in above average (+2.4ᴼF average) temperature for 5 of those events and above average precipitation (+2.6in average) for 4 of the 7 El Nino winters.

One might wonder how a warm, wet winter will affect the cow herd’s energy need.  Cows with a winter hair coat will have a lower critical temperature of 32ᴼF.  Sick hair types will have a greater, lower critical temperature (around 45ᴼF).  If cows are wet, lower critical temperature increases to 59ᴼF.  When temperature falls below the cow’s lower critical temperature, her energy needs increase.  So, if El Nino results in more days with precipitation, this will increase energy needs of the herd.  Based on 19 years of winter weather records for Little Rock, cows experienced, on average, 36 days of cold stress in central Arkansas.  Examining the number of cold and wet days during the past 7 El Nino winters does not reveal much in terms of how many days cows in Arkansas will be exposed to average daily temperatures below their lower critical temperature.  In only 2 of the past 7 El Nino winters, cows were exposed to more days of cold stress.  There were also 2 of the past 7 El Nino events where cows were exposed to fewer days of cold stress.

While persimmons and climate predictions cannot tell us exactly how the herd might handle the coming winter, hay testing can provide a good picture of the diet they will have and whether or not it is capable of keeping cows in good body condition from late-gestation through late-lactation.  An analysis of approximately 200 hay samples from 40 farms participating in recent winter feed meetings indicates about 46% of the hays produced this year will not meet the nutrient needs of pregnant, spring calving cows this coming winter.  If that’s not alarming, 72% will not meet the nutrient needs of cows nursing calves through winter.  With the anticipation of a wet 2015-16 winter, cows will likely not winter well unless forage is supplemented with an adequate amount of energy and protein.  Energy deficiencies are 3 times as likely to occur in Arkansas hays compared to protein deficiencies.

The graph below shows the variation in quality observed in winter feed meeting samples.  The dark square in the middle represents the average quality.  Don’t take forage quality for granted and assume your hay is average quality or “good” because it was fertilized.  Any plan for winter feeding should start with testing all lots of hay because it is very likely that neither your hay quality is equal to average nor is every harvest on the farm of equal quality.  Hay analysis will generally cost $18-20/sample and your county Extension agent can help evaluate winter feeding needs from forage test results, herd nutritional needs, and cool-season pasture management.


This figure illustrates the protein (CP%) and energy (TDN%) levels among 2015 winter feed meeting samples. The dark square indicates the average CP% and TDN% among samples which illustrates the fact that producer hays often differ from ‘average’.


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