Plummeting temperatures can cut profits come spring

Dec 23, 2010
by DTN

“You’ve got to be prepared,” says Alice Koupal. “If you’re not, you can have a disaster.” The Dante, SD, rancher should know. Come January and February, when temps are well below zero, this cattle operation is focused on calving chores for the family’s 450 to 500 Angus cows.

What does it take to keep the herd safe and productive in the coldest weather? Here are tips for winterizing the herd and keeping costs in check. The key is planning ahead.

If cows are less than the ideal of a 6.0 Body Condition Score (BCS) at weaning time (with 1.0 being emaciated and 9.0 being obese), get out the calendar and the calculator. John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef cattle specialist, says BCS is critical at this point in a cow’s life.

“If they’re a 4.0 BCS, I know they are going to have to go up two condition scores, or 160 pounds, by calving,” says Paterson. “If weaning and calving are five months apart, they are going to need to put on a pound a day.”

The specialist says it is not just cows that need the extra condition, the fetus’ nutritional needs matter more than we used to think. Research on fetal programming coming from the University of Nebraska, the University of Wyoming, and North Dakota State show it’s important to make sure the fetus is getting adequate protein.

“We always thought we could rough cows late in the second trimester and into the third. But the research indicates that if the fetus is not getting adequate protein, there is an effect on the reproduction of those heifer calves and on rate of gain of those steers.”

Weaning is a perfect time to preg check and then cull open cows. Why spend money on hay for a cow that isn’t going to give you a calf? And if the winter is particularly harsh, that open cow is doing nothing but stretching limited resources a little tighter.

If you drylot cows during the winter, get ready with a good clean-up of corrals. Haul the manure out or disc and harrow them. This lets light reach the ground which will help kill bacteria, says Paterson.

Make sure you’ve got plenty of hay on hand and don’t forget to test forage to make sure it has the protein and energy needed to get cows in the right BCS by calving. Aldie, VA, producer Mark Duffell says they try to go into winter with an extra 400 to 500 round bales on hand. “When the snows come, we put extra corn in the corn silage and add hay to the mix, but the cows still stay at the hay feeders. It takes a tremendous amount of energy for them.”

Virginia cattleman Duffell says come winter, they make sure they also have plenty of mulch-quality hay or straw. They use home-built wooden hutches, 16’ to 24’ long, eight feet wide and five feet tall. The hutches are enclosed on three sides with slats on the fourth side so baby calves can get in but cows can’t. The hutches are on skids so they can move them regularly to clean the ground. “We use a hay grinder to grind straw and blow it in the hutches,” says Duffell. “We also blow a nice bed around the hutches for the cows. Then the cows lie around the hutches and the calves go in.”

Meteorologists labeled last winter as the worst ever recorded in the East. Duffell says they calved out 165 cows during the thick of it, which included a four-footdeep snow and winds of 50 to 60 mph. They only lost five calves. “Those calf hutches were our saving grace.”

A healthy animal is much better able to withstand a tough environment. So be sure you’ve dewormed and given yearly vaccinations, says Paterson. “We cannot allow ourselves to get in an abortion storm with something like BVD. And I don’t want to see lice on the cows.”

Koupal says they include a scours vaccine for cows and replacement heifers in her herd. “We don’t have a scours problem, but we use it as a preventative,” she explains. “Even though we bed daily we can’t keep the calving barns as sanitary as we’d like. Plus, the humidity gets high in them. That’s a breeding ground for bacteria.”

And while you’re going to the expense of vaccinating animals, be sure you make minerals available. Research shows minerals help your vaccination program work better, says Paterson.

Windbreaks are not optional. “You’ve got to have them,” says Paterson. He says he saw a horseshoe-shaped, eight-foot-tall earth windbreak on a Montana ranch.

The open end faces south. It will hold 200 cows and the rancher feeds hay in it.

While they rely on both trees and wooden windbreaks, Koupal agrees they are a necessity. “Our winds are atrocious.” She adds, it’s just important to plan ahead, because if there’s anything she knows to expect, it’s the unexpected. “Here, one day it can be 60 degrees and the next it can be minus 20.” — DTN