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Getting Thin Cows Ready for Winter

Thin cow on pasture. Photo credit: Barry Yaremcio

With limited forage available in many pastures, it is difficult to keep cows in good condition going into winter. A cow that is 200 pounds lighter (condition score 2) than what is required will need an extra 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of hay to just keep warm over winter.

It is easier to put weight onto cows when temperatures are warm because maintenance energy needs are lower than when it is cold. Cows that are weaned have a 25% lower energy and protein requirement compared to a lactating cow.

Weaning calves early allows more time for cows to put on weight prior to winter. Instead of requiring a ration or grazed forage that has 11% protein and 65% TDN on a dry basis to support milk production, a dry cow in mid pregnancy requires 9% protein and 60% TDN. If kept on higher nutrient intake, the cows will gain weight. Calves have a fully functional digestive system at 150 days and can be fed a ration that maintains good growth rates.

Providing supplemental feed to cows on poor pastures is an option in some situations. Distance from the pasture, amount, and frequency of feeding all need to be considered. When feeding a pelleted product that contains urea, it contains soluble carbohydrates that is needed to use the urea efficiently. Other products that have minimal carbohydrates are not as efficient.

Many dugouts have very little water this late in the year. Access can be a problem. If a cow does not drink enough water, daily feed intake is reduced which limits nutrient consumption. Milk production is compromised and weight loss increases. The quality of dugout water is also a concern. Problems with high total dissolved solids or sodium reduced feed intake and sulfur can cause polio.

It may be necessary to wean the cows and provide supplemental feed to improve cow condition. If the pastures are depleted, it is time to bring the cows home and start a winter feeding program.

For more information on a feeding program for your herd, contact Barry at 403-741-6032 or


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