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February tests skills of cow-calf producer

Don’t tell cow-calf producers that February is a short month. February can stretch into weeks of misery, worry and calving-night thoughts of “Why me, Lord?”

“Getting through February is a challenge for most cattle producers,” says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist. “This time of year, green grass can’t come soon enough.”

By February, most producers are out of winter grazing. Hay feeding is a cold, endless chore. And for many, the bale pile isn’t big enough.

February becomes the month to make resolutions for next year. Things have to improve. Kallenbach says the one best thing producers can do — if they don’t already — is overseed legumes into the pasture. “I’ll keep preaching frost-seeding clover into grass pastures until everyone gets it done,” he adds. “There’s not much you can do that will do more for less money.”

Key Points

Mid-winter can be challenging time for cow-calf producers.

February is good time to overseed pastures with legumes.

Be prepared to meet spring-calving cows’ nutrition demands.


Kallenbach is big on broadcasting 4 pounds of red clover, 1 pound of ladino clover, and “throw in some lespedeza for good measure,” he says. Do that every year until you get a third of the pasture in legumes. At that point, you can seed every other year.

Here’s another resolution. Don’t put nitrogen fertilizer on in the spring. “And especially, don’t mix legume seeds in with a cartful of fertilizer. That practice just makes no sense whatsoever. We kill too many legume seedings with nitrogen,” Kallenbach says. “The spurt of grass growth crowds out clover.”

In addition, most benefits of nitrogen show up 60 days after the application. That means spring-applied nitrogen gives a big boost of growth in May to early June. “What time do you have too much forage and are thinking about mowing to control the growth? May and June,” Kallenbach adds.

Nitrogen applied in summer, especially in August, gives a boost in fall growth that stimulates the stockpile for winter grazing. With grass stockpiled for winter grazing, the February hay-feeding chores are cut.

Nutrition boost

There are more benefits to winter grazing than just reducing the hay-feeding chore. Most likely, stockpiled grass gives better nutrition to the cow at a time when she needs it most. Too often, nutrient needs of the cow about to calve and/or start to lactate are neglected. A cow starting lactation needs a better ration to help her — and her calf.

After calving, the cow needs extra groceries. Both energy and protein demands go up about one-third when she starts nursing a calf. A good supply of milk helps her calf all through life. A calf starved for nutrition in the first 60 days of life can never catch up.

The best feed on the farm should go to the cows with new calves. That’s the best hay, and probably some supplement as well.

Want to hear another resolution from Kallenbach? Test the hay to determine what nutrients you’re giving the cows.

“If you test only some bales, test your worst hay first,” Kallenbach says. “Find out just how much added nutrients are needed. When you see that hay-test result, you’ll resolve to do a better with timely harvesting of hay, while spring-growth nutrients remain and before nutrients become locked in the seed heads.”

Kallenbach’s advice last year to start cutting hay in April caused a lot of coffee-shop talk. Still, he sticks by his plan to cut the hay early, when you have a better chance of making good hay before the rainy season starts.

Look ahead

See, the resolutions are stacking up. There are more possible. Resolve to shorten the calving season: by timed artificial insemination, or just taking the bull out of the herd. That long cold, wet, drawn-out calving season last year may have caused some producers to resolve to sell the whole danged herd this year.

Cow numbers have dropped, just at the time when calf prices are booming. That wasn’t a good resolution. Hang on through the six weeks of February. Things will get better. They always seem to when grass greens up.

Cow diet affects calf for lifetime

It was almost by accident that Rob Kallenbach learned the benefit of better diets for calves in their first 60 days of life.

In an experiment at the University of Missouri Southwest Center, Mount Vernon, Kallenbach and research colleagues were studying different diets for cows at calving time. Calves nursing from cows fed the best diet weighed 28 pounds more after the first 60 days. That was an extra half-pound a day from better milk.

The unexpected part came when the scientists observed the calves after that study ended. They had pulled cows for the calving study from several MU herds. After the study, the cows went home to their research herds. At weaning time, those calves from cows that got better rations during early lactation weighed an extra 60 pounds at weaning. The benefit of early nutrition — that is, more milk — stuck with them.

More recent studies at other land-grant universities have followed calves all the way to slaughter. Calves with good nutrition early in life, even before birth, will grade better on the rail at slaughter.

If calves are to be sold on the grid, collecting premiums for prime and choice grades, they must start strong. Early nutrition sets them up for life. That bit of advice will help producers who retain ownership. February feeding of spring-calving cows can pay back in the final calf-price premiums.


This article published in the February, 2011 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.