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"The Winter of Our Discontent"?

12:54PM May 16, 2014

Even William Shakespeare would agree that this past winter was not "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
By: Roy Burris, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky

Shakespeare must have been thinking about caring for beef cattle this past winter when he coined those words. As spring arrives, we can't help but feel some relief just to get past this tough winter weather. Spring calving cows and their newborn calves especially felt the wrath of ice storms, snow, cold and mud. But spring is here and we're "over the hump". Or are we?

In the short term, we have some pressing concerns. The first one is to get the cows re-bred starting this month (May). Most cows will need to improve body condition, some substantially, or pregnancy rates will suffer. Since feed is in short supply, most producers will "turn out" to grass as soon as it appears lush, but watery grass will not sustain milk production and weight gain. Continue to provide energy supplementation a little longer. The goal is to have cows at a condition score of near 5 (ribs covered) at the start of the breeding season. If cows are not pregnant before extreme heat sets in (late June or early July), pregnancy rates will likely be very low.

Continue to feed a high magnesium supplement until the soil temperature warms up. Don't skip magnesium supplementation - regardless of what you read. Research conducted in the 1970's at the UK-West Kentucky station, showed that 1 oz of magnesium (22 grams of Mg) would prevent grass tetany in high risk situations. When it was left out of the mineral mix, grass tetany would appear as predicted. A mineral supplement with about 14% Mg should be adequate with normal consumption.

Reseeding pasture areas that were trampled to the point of killing the grass will be needed. Weeds like pigweed (spiny amaranth) will encroach on high traffic areas.

There are some long term considerations, too. Was this last winter an aberration or a harbinger of things to come? Since cows and calves represent a substantial financial outlay and for humane reasons, we need to re-evaluate some of our practices and consider some changes.

We could shift our calving season to the fall when weather isn't a problem to calf survival. Pregnancy rates and calf survival are generally higher than for spring calving. We have done several years of research and results are better for the fall but feed costs are higher. We only had 10 open cows out of 200 for this fall/winter breeding season. However, most people still prefer spring calving.

If you are staying with spring calving (Feb/Mar), you should make every effort to be successful (even in weather like this past winter). It could be time to consider more shelter or protection for our cows and calves. How much does it cost when you lose a few cows and several calves?

Windbreaks (natural or man-made) can be important since wind chill increases the energy requirement of cattle. Cattle depend upon their hair coats to keep heat in and cold out. Hair is effective in keeping cattle warm, unless it gets wet and flattens which lets moisture next to the skin. If cattle are wet, or the wind blows enough to separate the hair, they are more susceptible to cold. Thin, hungry cattle are even more vulnerable. We must, at the very least, increase feed (especially energy supplementation) during periods of severely cold weather.

Barns and feeding areas which protect cattle from severe weather and mud can be beneficial and environmentally desirable by managing manure and runoff. These barns offer the added benefit of keeping cattle dry during wet, cold weather. Since newborn calves are the most vulnerable to cold weather, calving barns that have facilities and equipment for "pulling" calves and are cleanly bedded may also be helpful for spring calving herds.

We don't normally need a lot of housing for beef cattle but things haven't been normal lately. This winter tested our resolve but it may have also pointed out some of the weaknesses in our programs. We want to keep cattle comfortable and healthy anyway but increased value of cattle gives us even more incentive to do just that. We can learn from the past as we enjoy new grass and sunshine.