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Optimizing Use of Winter Feed Supplies

Photo credit: Barry Yaremcio

With high feed prices this fall, it is important to get the most out of the cattle rations as possible. Preventing feeding losses reduces the overall cost of feeding the herd and can increase the number of animals that can be kept on farm.

Knowing the quality of the feed, size, and stage of production the cows are in makes it possible to blend higher quality hay or silage with straw to stretch feed supplies. Feeding a straw-grain ration pre-calving is also an alternative. Working with a nutritionist can make the most of the feed that you have to provide a balanced ration to the animals.

Feeding systems can alter what the cows eat, how much they waste, and the nutrients that are consumed. Ring bale feeders can have 3 to 14.6% waste depending on design (Buskirk et. al., 2003). Preventing the cows from pulling hay out of the feeder and dropping it onto the ground is key to reducing waste. Once the hay is trampled upon, the cows will not eat the forage.

Bale processors and bale unrollers are common methods used to feed cows. When cows

are fed in the field, there are times when feed is delivered onto snow. Physical feed losses can be as high as 19% when a bale processor is used, and 12% when bales are unrolled. Up to 75% of the lost material is less than 18 mm or ¾ of an inch in size. (Yaremcio, 2009). When cows walk over the windrow, leaves and flowers are shattered off the stem and are trampled into the snow. This can result in protein losses up to 22% and 26% of the Calcium. These losses can be prevented by placing the feed into fence line bunk feeders or portable feeders.

To prevent or to minimize losses, a portable bunk feeder out of drill stem pipe and rough planks is an option to reduce waste. A feeder that is 28 feet long, 5 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall has sufficient space to hold a 1400 pound bale of hay or greenfeed. This will supply enough feed for approximately 40 cows. To prevents cows from getting into the feeder, the bottom should be narrower than the top so the cow cannot get a foot down inside the feeder and be able to climb in.

Harlan Hughes from North Dakota State University in the mid 1990’s calculated that a dollar ($1) reduction in winter feeding costs increased net profit of the operation by $2.48. Considering the increased costs associated with feed, equipment and labour, the current rate of return would be much higher. Reducing feed waste could help improve the bottom line.

For more information on optimizing feed supplies for winter feeding, contact Barry Yaremcio at 403-741-6032 or by email at

References cited:

Buskirk et. al., 2003, Journal of Animal Science, 81:109-115

Yaremcio, 2009, University of Alberta Press


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