by: Kim Mullenix, Ph.D.
Extension Beef Cattle Systems Specialist
Auburn University

Although we have had somewhat mild temperatures this winter compared to those in the last couple of years, the weather man got one thing right. .. it has rained a lot! Certainly we don't want to complain about much needed moisture, but it can make our winter feeding situation a bit "muckier" than expected.

A big question is what is the impact of excess rain fall on forage quality and management. The following are some considerations to ponder:

Dealing with Excess Rainfall- Forage Perspectives

Cool-season forages - These forages generally don't like "wet feet," and some species may be more cold sensitive than others (i.e. some annuals such as oats). This means that these conditions can put significant stress on these forages. As we enter into March we often expect a boost in production in our cool-season pastures; however, it is especially important to monitor pasture height (minimum of six inches of growth needed before the start of grazing) and carefully determine if grazing is an option. Grazing when too wet (or when soil is extremely soft) may damage vegetative growth from animal hoof action and lead to decreased forage production potential.

Start with a lighter stocking rate, and work up to a normal level as conditions become more favorable. Decide if limit-grazing, rotational stocking or strip-grazing may be an option in your operation as conditions improve to manage these areas most effectively. Try to keep vehicle traffic through pastures to a minimum. Check cattle and pastures on foot when possible, or use smaller vehicles (such as an ATV) that do less damage in terms of rut development, soil compaction and effects on the forage stand.

Grass Tetany - Grass tetany is a nutritional problem that tends to generally strike only females, most often during the early stages of lactation. Tetany is usually associated with cool-season forages that have been well-fertilized and occurs during periods of cool, cloudy weather that favor fast plant growth. This causes a plant deficiency in magnesium. When cattle consume these forages, high levels of other nutrients in the plant such as nitrogen and potassium can cause a decrease in blood serum magnesium levels. Physical symptoms at onset include nervousness, excessive salivation, muscle tremors, and rapid breathing. This may also lead to cows going "down" that are unable to get back up. The best prevention method for grass tetany is to provide a mineral supplement containing added magnesium. There are numerous commercial mineral supplements available containing a balance of all needed macro- and micro-minerals with additional magnesium. A mineral containing 10 to 14 percent magnesium consumed at four ounces per day should provide adequate magnesium in the diet. Remember that form of the mineral is important to getting consistent intake. Consider providing a free-choice loose salt-based mineral. Avoid using hard blocks when cattle are at risk for grass tetany since intake tends to be lower with blocks compared to loose mineral. A good rule of thumb is to provide a higher magnesium mixture until daytime temperatures are consistently above 60F.

Dealing with Mud in Winter/Spring Calving Systems

If your herd is calving during the winter/early spring months, cold, wet weather can be problematic. Make sure newborn calves get out of muddy, wet areas and receive colostrums within the first 12 hours after birth. Avoid calving in muddy lots to prevent calves suckling muddy teats, which can lead to diseases.

The constant presence of mud can also impact cattle feeding behavior and cause a challenge in maintaining body condition score of cattle. Under mild muddy conditions (four to six inches of mud), cattle have been observed to decrease their daily dry matter intake by as much as 15 percent. As the amount of mud increases, intake can continue to decrease.

Although we cannot eliminate mud from the operation, the following are a couple of tips to manage around muddy conditions:

Revisit your soils map. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service hosts an online Web Soil Survey that can provide individual soils maps for your operation. Understanding your soil type and drainage potential may help you select better sites for high-traffic areas where hay can be fed during the winter/spring months.

Hay feeding logistics - Under muddy conditions, a hay feeding "sacrifice" area can become one of the muckiest places on the farm. If the sacrifice area is large enough, consider feeding hay back away from the fence/gate, and then work your way forward over time. This will prevent as much foot/equipment traffic right at the point of entry.

Consider alternatives - If mud is consistently a problem year-after-year, it may be worthwhile to look into ground protection in high-traffic areas. Geotextile cloth and concrete pads are just a few examples of ways to improve the footing in high traffic areas such as gates, feeding areas, and around watering systems. When making these additions, provide plenty of surface area for the herd to prevent deep mud formation around these areas. For feeding areas, remember that mature cattle need at least 2 to 2.5 ft of bunk space per head and think about how that translates into the foot space needed below them.

Where Can I Find More Information on these Topics?

Visit www.alabamabeefsystems.com and download our Timely Information Fact Sheets on these topics and more. Contact your local Extension office to discuss any additional questions and find out about beef cattle Extension programs coming to your area.

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