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Winter Grazing Health Risk?

Updated: 07/12/2010 @ 12:51pm

As cattle graze on pastures this winter, how do producers ensure they will remain healthy during those blustery, snowy months? Bill Ramsey, Pioneer Livestock Information Manager, explains that while winter grazing is a viable option to reducing overall input costs, producers can't afford to sacrifice their herd's health in the interim. He says since nutrition and health go hand in hand, cattle performance will suffer if nutrition is deficient.

"Those two factors are very important because they are closely tied together. A lot of producers are trying to control feed costs and are looking at co-products to supplement, such as distillers grains, corn gluten feeds, or depending on availability, food-industry byproducts."

However, in trying to control feed costs, you don't want to sacrifice a cow's body condition. Successful winter grazing comes down to one key point: making sure cows maintain a good body condition until calving time.

"Producers need to watch the body condition on their cows and first-calf heifers," says Ramsey. "You'd like to see the cows calve with a 5 or 6 body condition score. Recommended body condition score at calving for a two-year-old first-calf heifer is 6," he says.

Ideally, he recommends producers split cattle into groups based on their body condition scores. He says the best time to do this is during pregnancy checks.

Other areas to monitor to maintain a good body score include analyzing forages, access to water, and parasite control.

1. Analyze forages. Ramsey suggests analyzing forages that will be used to supplement feed because you may want to save your highest quality forages for animals that have the lowest body condition scores.

2. Water access.Water is a nutrient and should be considered part of a comprehensive program. "If animals don't get enough water, it can result in compromised immune functions and lower conception rates. Animals need to have a good quality water source," says Ramsey.

3. Parasite control. Every producer sees winter as one of the most expensive times of the year for input costs per cow because they're going to be feeding some sort of supplemental feed or protein supplement. However, if you're feeding parasites at the same time that cow is not going to be efficient with feed and that's the last thing you want to happen in winter.

While supplying animals with adequate nutrition as they wintergraze is important to maintaining a good body condition score, Ramsey says producers should have a year long plan in place.

"I really like to see producers have a year round comprehensive health and nutrition program. Get your local experts involved, like a veterinarian for herd health, to establish a vaccination program and parasite control for all seasons," he says. "The beef cow is an amazing creature that has the ability to graze and convert a lot of low-quality nutrients to energy to produce protein. However, when cattle aren't healthy, that energy is not converted as efficiently as it should be."

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