by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Cattlemen are constantly faced with a list of decisions they have to make. At this point most of them focus on how they will manage and care for their herd over the next few months – primarily winter. In some locales that's not a great problem. In some areas this may continue to be a challenge as dry conditions challenge producers in some parts of the United States. Regardless of the situation, let's take a look at structuring the decision making process with two primary issues in mind – improved performance and improved profits, both of which everyone can stand more of even with the strength of the current cattle markets. The main goal is to develop a system by which the tasks at hand may be prioritized by implementing decisions that will improve cattle condition, performance, efficiency and the bottom line.

Where Are You Right Now?

The first thing is what the status of the operation is today and the components that make it up. This will include forage inventory, brood cow body condition, contracted grain or supplement supplies and so on. The following is a checklist of sorts you might use to help determine some critical factors:

Forage Inventory – Quantity and Quality

Research has long shown us the importance of nutrition on a cow's performance. Economics has long shown us the need to provide this nutrition in a cost effective manner. And finally, because the cow derives the largest portion of her needed nutrients from forages. All this said, cattlemen have known for years that the optimal way to provide the nutrient needs for our cowherd is to produce adequate levels of good quality forage.

Take a look at what you have at this point. To begin, how much standing grass (also referred to as stockpiled grass) is available for grazing? Cows will consume dormant grass that is in relatively good condition. We run into problems from factors like over-stocking or drought where grass has already been grazed short. This simply means that there will be little or no standing grass available and more of the herd's forage needs will need to come from supplemental forage sources.

Second, how much stored forage have you produced and is available for feeding? How many round or square bales have your put up? What do the bales weigh on the average? How many tons of silage or baleage? What is the quality of these forage sources (nutrient density). The single best tool for the cattleman to implement in his forage program is forage testing. The ONLY way to determine the nutrient density of your forages is to have it tested by a qualified forage testing laboratory. There are many good, competent testing labs across the country. You can also contact your local county extension agent who can probably assist you with collecting forage sample and get them to your state experiment station or land grant university forage lab.

Earlier it was mentioned the need to determine the weight of the hay bales you have put up. Most producers are lousy predictors of round bale weight. The weight of hay bales is also affected by a lot of variables. These include moisture content of the baled forage, type of forage, baler settings, operator experience, storage methods, etc. The only certain way to determine the weight of a bale is to weigh a number in order to determine an average. A 100 lb. variation in predicted bale weight (i.e., you estimate bales to weigh 1,200 lbs. and they actually weigh 1100) can have huge effects on the amount of hay provided to a herd over the course of a feeding season. The same is true of small square bales. Get a bathroom scale out and weigh 20 or 30 in order to get a good average and feed accordingly.

If you use silage as a forage source, one of the most important factors to determine is moisture content. Consider this example. Let's say you have two piles of grass silage. One tests at 75 percent moisture and the other tests at 65 percent moisture. In a given day you might want to feed 10 lbs of dry matter from your silage source, knowing that the cow herd has a pretty good standing forage base upon which they are grazing but they need a little forage supplementation. Initially you are feeding from the 65 percent moisture pile which means, to get 10 lbs of dry matter per head you need to provide about 28.5 lbs of silage (actual) per head per day (10 lbs/35% Dry Matter or 10/.35 = 28.5). For some reason you decide to feed out of your other silage pile which is 75 percent moisture but you do not adjust for the difference in moisture content. You are still feeding the same 28.5 lbs of silage per head per day but all of a sudden you go from providing 10 lbs of dry matter to providing 7.125 lbs of dry matter (28.5 lbs X 25% Dry Matter). If you had not tested your silage sources and did not know a difference in moisture content existed you would unintentionally start underfeeding the herd which could be detrimental to performance.

Another important factor to consider is HOW you feed your forage sources. Are round bales simply placed out in pastures as is? Are they fed in hay rings or bale feeders? Are they rolled out on the ground? Is silage fed on the ground or in troughs or feeders of some type? Feeding any type of forage on the ground dramatically increases the amount of loss you experience. Repeated research and experience has shown that losses in round hay bales fed on the ground can exceed 30 percent. Simply placing a hay ring around the bales so cows cannot stand or lie on hay as well as urinate or defecate on it will dramatically reduce losses. The same is true of feeding silage. Feeding in troughs eliminates most of the waste. These savings can quickly pay for the investment you have in feeders and troughs. For example if you are comparing feeding round baled hay on the ground to feeding in a bale ring, consider the two levels of loss on a purely economic basis:

This shows that feeding hay on the ground without a ring or similar feeder can create a loss of $1,250 per 100 head over a given feeding period. A producer can afford to invest in several rings for less than his losses in one year and save those dollars in subsequent years.

B. Cow Herd Inventory

Your forage and other supplementation needs will be largely determined by your herd inventory. Questions you have to ask include: What is the size of my cow herd, including cows, larger calves (which will be held over), developing heifers and bulls. A very basic rule of thumb is that the average cow will eat about 2.4 percent of her body weight in dry matter per day. In other words, a 1100 lb. cow needs to consume around 26.5 lbs of dry matter every day. This is easy to calculate if a cow is eating only dry hay. The hay probably averages 85 percent dry matter or better. This means that an 1,100 lb. cow would need to consume about 31 lbs. of hay per day (26.5 lbs DM/85% or 26.5/.85 = 31 lbs.) Therefore, this is from all sources, standing grass, hay, silage, grain, etc. Other factors which may affect this include temperatures (heat – they eat less, cold – they eat more), moisture conditions (wet, dry, muddy, etc.), stage of production (dry, trimester of pregnancy). Therefore we need to build in a “fudge factor” of 20 percent or so.

By the end of summer the producer needs to go through and assess what the average Body Condition Score (BCS) of his herd. In many cases it is very common for producers to come into the fall and winter of the year with a herd at a lower BCS than would be preferable. Remember a couple of things, it is common and actually physiologically natural for a cow to lose a certain amount of weight as she goes through winter. Let's say one body condition score. For a cow averaging 1,000 to 1,100 lbs., this is about 75 to 100 lbs. of body weight. Therefore, if she comes into this period in better condition, i.e. a BCS of 5 instead of a BCS 4 she will lose down to a BCS that is still workable (i.e. a BCS 4 instead of 3.) Research has shown that a cow will breed optimally at a BCS of 5 to 6. If she enters winter at a 5 and loses down to a 4 it is much simpler to get her back to a 5 than if she comes in at a 4 and loses down to a 3 and subsequently you need to get her back to a 5. The difference here is for her to gain back only 75 to 100 lbs. as opposed to gaining back 150 to 200. Obviously the first option is less expensive.

To accomplish this actually requires looking back into early summer or even late spring and implementing a supplementation program that will help you achieve this goal, especially if summer environmental conditions turn against you (i.e. hot and dry resulting in lower forage growth and production). At this point in time, however, it is obviously too late to accommodate for deficiencies in this past year's program. This can be a goal for next year. At this point, the producer has to examine where the herd is currently at what he will have to do to get through calving (assuming a spring breeding season) and rebreeding, subsequently maintaining or building BCS up until that point. If he has a fall calving herd it is a matter of determining what must be done now to maintain condition and possibly build it from calving to rebreeding and then subsequently holding BCS as much as possible as the cows with young calves are wintered.

C. Assessing the Difference

Once you look at forage supplies – what you have produced, and your cow inventory – what you need, you can determine where you stand. Let's look at an example:

• At this time you evaluate your pastures and you determine you have some standing forage but not a lot. This means you are going to have to feed the majority of the cow's dry matter and nutrient needs from hay.

• You have 400 round bales of grass hay weighing an average of 1,200 lbs. each which you will feed in hay rings.

• You have had your hay tested and it is averaging 88 percent dry matter (12 percent moisture) and 8 percent protein.

• You have a spring calving cowherd of 100 cows (avg. weight 1,100 lbs.) and 3 bulls (avg. weight 2000 lbs). You have 35, 18 month-old, pregnant replacement heifers, weighing an average of 900 lbs. You have just weaned your calf crop of which you retained 30 replacement heifers, weighing an average of 500 lbs. and shipped the remaining heifers and steers.

• You determine that the cowherd averages a BCS of about 4 at this point so you need to maintain this weight and build it to a BCS of 5 by March.

• You estimate that your hay feeding season will run from November 15 until March 31 - 136 days.

Based on these facts we know:

To begin, as things stand, you see that you are short of hay. You do know, however that you will need to feed a supplement of some type. For simplicity sake let's say to the cows you will feed and average of 3.5 lbs. of a 20 percent range cube, the bulls and average of 5 lbs. of this cube. The larger heifers 8 lbs of a 14 percent grain mix and to the younger heifers 5 lbs. of a 16 percent grain mix. This will save you about 795 lbs. of hay per day or 108,120 lbs. over the feeding period reducing your hay requirement to 493,272.00 lbs. Your deficit is now only 61,272 lbs. or about 56 bales. You have the option of purchasing this additional hay now, which is probably the smart thing to do as opposed to later in the winter when supplies could get short or waiting until later in the year to see what type of winter you have and taking the chance you will not need more and if you do having to pay more for it.

3. Planning Supplementation

As noted you will need some cubes as well as heifer mixes. The exact formulations of these will depend on forage nutrient availability and that's a subject for another article. Based on the numbers above you will need about 50,000 lbs. of cubes for the bulls and cows, 38,000 lbs. of a grain mix for the pregnant heifers and 20,400 lbs. of a grain mix for the yearling heifers. Always compare several feed sources to get comparison pricing. Look at what service they will offer, will they deliver, what are credit terms, will they contract, etc. In a volatile grain market such as always exists it is a good idea to contract at least 50 percent of your needs through the feeding season that way you have your self protected in case the market moves up or if it moves down. Compare pricing in terms of cost per unit of protein and/or per unit of energy. Finally, utilize a high quality free-choice mineral, based on your forage analysis that can be purchased economically and that is proven to be palatable and will hold up in a mineral feeder in the elements (i.e. won't set up and won't blow away).


Remember that in a well managed cow operation, performance and profitability is based on planning. You've been provided a fairly simple outline of where to start at this time of the year. Subsequently you can implement more factors from here as well as those issues related to your operation.

Copyright 2014 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at 903-352-3475 or by e-mail at For more information, please visit us on Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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