Image Credit: U.S. Dept of Agriculture
Your winter grazing season can only continue as long as all your cattle nutrition requirements (protein and energy) can be met primarily by your winter pastures. The length of your winter grazing season therefore depends on two critical factors:
Both are within your control.
I've covered the first point - grass quality - in the article about how to create high quality winter pastures and the article about how use your daily winter pasture rotation to extended your winter grazing season.
This article focuses on the second point - how to reduce your cattle's nutrition requirements during the winter grazing season. I will show you how to dramatically reduce how many calories and how much protein your cattle need during the winter grazing season so you can safely continue grazing even as the quality of your winter pastures slowly deteriorates throughout the winter.
Cattle nutrition requirements depend on:
The cattle nutrition tips and techniques in this article will show you how to manipulate each of these four criteria so you can extend your winter grazing season and avoid unnecessary cattle feeding costs.
The date you choose for your calving season is the most important factor affecting your cattle's nutritional needs during the winter grazing season. Because cattle nutrition requirements are enormous just prior to calving as well as while they are lactating, you can only extend your grazing season deep into the winter if you calve during the growing season. Period.
Only by calving during the growing season, scheduled so your cows have time to fatten up on grass before they begin to calve, is it possible to reduce your cattle's nutritional requirements during the winter months so your cattle can graze safely throughout the winter season and maintain their fertility in the following breeding season.
Likewise, breed choice and your individual herd selection criteria are also vital to producing cost-effective, low-maintenance, highly fertile cattle that are suited to your climate and are capable of safely continuing their pasture rotation during the winter months.
Your herd selection criteria and the timing of your calving season are so crucial to your success in the grass-fed beef production business that they are covered in a separate full-length article on how to prepare your cattle herd for winter grazing and are discussed at length in the Grass-fed Cattle book.
As long as you calve during the growing season there are a number of handy management tricks that will significantly reduce your cattle's nutritional requirements and keep your herd grazing longer during the winter.
Different cattle age groups have different feed requirements. Your cattle nutritionist will be able to tell you when the pasture quality and supplement mix for one age group are not sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of another age group based on the results of your forage analyses.
At that point the age groups should be separated so you can either increase the supplementation of one group without increasing the supplementation costs of the other, or even put any particularly vulnerable age groups on feed while the rest of your cattle herd continues to graze in the winter pasture rotation.
For example, first calf heifers, which are still growing, are pregnant, and already have a calf underfoot, have much higher nutritional requirements than mature cows that no longer need to expend calories for growth. Thus, first calf heifers tend to be the group with the highest cattle nutritional requirements. Although the heifers can be grazed together with the cow herd during the growing season, their higher nutritional requirements are typically best served by separating them from the cow herd in the winter so they can be supplemented separately and grazed on the best quality winter pastures in order to keep your overall feed and supplement costs down.
As long as the majority of your herd is still in good body condition to safely continue winter grazing and if your pasture quality is still providing sufficient nutritional value for your cattle according to your cattle nutritionist's calculations, you'll want to continue to graze. Nonetheless, a few individual animals may begin losing body condition too fast.
Don't end your low-cost winter grazing season for the sake of a few high-maintenance individuals. Instead, pull these individual high-maintenance cattle from the main herd and supplement or feed them separately so that the remainder of the herd can continue to graze on pasture and keep your overall cattle feeding costs down.
High-maintenance cows and heifers should also be recorded as potential cattle to cull from the herd as soon as possible so their high-maintenance genetics are not perpetuated in your cattle herd.
Cows only need 2-3 months before they calve to prepare their bodies for the next calving season. Thus, unless you have some other reason to wean, the calves can continue to supplement themselves with their mothers' milk for as long as possible, allowing them to continue to grow and remain healthier throughout the winter pasture rotation.
Instead of weaning and then supplementing the calves with some kind of cattle feed ration, by delaying weaning you are using the fat stored on the cows' backs from the grass excesses of the previous growing season to supplement the calves - a truly low-cost supplement program!
Instead of weaning calves at 6 months of age, leave the calves with their mothers as long as possible - even as late as 9 to 10 months of age. As long as the cows body conditions are not jeopardized by continuing to provide milk for their calves during the winter grazing season, it makes good financial sense to delay calf weaning as long as possible. Many of the calves will wean themselves as their mother's milk dries up naturally or as the cows stop producing milk of their own accord to compensate for the lower nutritional value of their winter pastures.
Make sure that you monitor your cattle's body condition throughout the winter grazing season and that you work with a livestock nutritionist to calculate if your forage quality is sufficient to continue lactation without putting your cows' health in jeopardy.
Calves born during the growing season are old enough that they are only partially supplementing themselves with their mothers' milk by the time the winter starts. Thus, if the entire cow herd is losing weight too quickly during the winter grazing season, you can wean the calves as early as 4 months of age and supplement (or feed) the calves separately, thereby dramatically reducing the nutritional requirements of your cow herd. Supplementing or even feeding your calves is still much cheaper than putting your entire cow herd on a cattle feed ration.
While the bulk of your cow herd may be in good body condition to allow them to continue to winter grazing while continuing to provide milk for their calves, a few individual cows or heifers may get too thin to safely continue to provide milk for their calves.
Instead of weaning all the calves or instead providing more expensive feed or feed supplements to the entire herd, consider weaning individual calves from their thin mothers.
However, instead of weaning the calves, wean the thin cows. Remove the thin cows or heifers from the herd and supplement or feed them separately so the remainder of the cow herd can continue to graze.
By leaving the individual weaned calves with the rest of the herd they will be 'raised by the herd', making weaning a MUCH less stressful event for the calves and possibly even allowing them to continue to supplement themselves by stealing milk from other cows.
And when you're ready to start planning your cattle farm, check out my book: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef