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Winter Nutrition for Beef Cattle

Winter Nutrition for Beef Cattle

Heading into the colder months it is important to keep in mind the extra requirements for our livestock. Whether you are bale grazing or have the herd back in the barn, recognizing two main concepts will help ensure the animals make it through the winter with enough vitality for another successful year!


First, the cold temperatures require the animal to expend more energy to keep warm. Cows that live outside will require some form of wind break and will require more feed to keep warm.


Secondly, the feeding of stored feeds means fewer fresh nutrients from pasture. Stored feeds lose vitamins and some other nutrients continually all throughout storage.    


Body Condition

Learning how to assess the body condition of your animals can tune you into changes that may need to be made in the animal’s diet. Condition scoring is especially tricky in winter when animals have thick coats, you may need to get your hands on the animals to properly assess. The animal’s body condition before winter begins will determine the quality of feed required. Cows that are too thin will be required to gain weight during the winter to be able to deliver a healthy calf, provide sufficient amounts of milk and get bred again for the following year. The amount of feed and feed quality required to overwinter a thin cow is significantly higher than a cow in good condition.


Extra Mineral and Vitamin requirements

  • Supplying enough mineral is very important during winter.
  • Those who free choice mineral exclusively will notice mineral consumption will increase in the winter months! Usually, the same goes for Seaweed meal, especially towards the end of winter.
  • Continue to provide free choice salt as well


  • Still very important in winter; drives consumption of feed
  • Need some way to keep it unfrozen
  • Will drink closer to required intake if warmed a little (not ice cold)
  • Cold water can slow digestion and cause issues especially if drink a lot at once

Digestibility in Forages

  • Higher digestibility means that ruminants can get more energy out of the hay
  • Being aware of strategies to make high quality forages is very important for “grass fed” animals
  • Having good digestibility in your forages makes it less likely that you need to supplement grains
  • Low digestibility and poor quality forages will result in weight loss
    • Monitor the herd for signs of energy deficiency such as:
      • Consistently distended rumens
      • Scruffy hair coat (different from long hair)
      • Rumination more than 60 chews
      • Spinal chill- hair standing up on back around shoulders

Molasses for extra energy

  • Consider supplementing molasses if more energy required
  • Molasses also helps with fiber digestibility

Cold Stress

  • During those extremely cold and windy days cows will need to increase their consumption of forage to stay warm
  • Make more feed available during these times and do not let them run out

Natural Detox

  • Autumn and fall bring on a natural detoxification process. Think of colds in humans!
  • Winter dysentery and pneumonia in the fall and early spring can be the result of the body not having the capability to deal with the expulsion of toxins
  • During spring and fall it is important to provide enough vitamins and binders (such as clays) to expel toxins successfully


  • 3-6 weeks before calving consider lead feeding higher quality forages in preparation for calving
    • An easy way to do this is to offer alfa-alfa forage as part of the ration
    • Make the change gradually over 1-2 weeks
  • Adequate energy is required to, not only grow a calf inside, but also make lots of milk for the calf once born
  • Adequate protein is required to make antibodies for high quality colostrum
  • Lactating cows consume 30-50% more so be ready to increase feed once the calves start coming
  • If cannot meet energy or protein requirements with forages then consider supplementing with grains and/or molasses.

Know your Forages!

  • Test forages ahead of time so you can manage for potential shortcomings
  • If continue grazing in winter, test the quality of the feed on that pasture to ensure you don’t run into an issue of extreme weight loss- often these pastures are very low quality
  • Pair lower quality forage with higher quality to ensure consistent nutrition throughout winter
  • Keep your high-quality hay to feed beginning 3-6 weeks prior to calving until back on pasture
  • Forages containing legumes will have higher protein than those with just grasses.
  • In general
    • Forages made early in the season will have high digestibility and lots of good energy (longest days of sunlight) so don’t wait until July to make all your forages
    • 2nd 3rd and 4th cuts will be higher in protein than 1st cuts
    • 4th cuts and even 3rd cuts that are made late in the season and/or had lots of rain during growth will have very little fiber and high amounts of insoluble protein and need to be slowed down with forages that contain more fiber.

As always, Bio-Ag is here to help you with all your nutrition inquiries and high-quality mineral and vitamin needs! We can test your forages and put together rations and mineral programs for your herd. Please don’t hesitate to contact us or myself directly at [email protected]. Helping you ensure your animals are in the best health is our passion!


~Dr. Kathrine Stoeckli

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