Cattle producers have been fortunate so far this year. They find themselves and their cattle in relatively good shape as winter heads our way, says Ralph Blalock, an extension agent specializing in livestock in Edgecombe County, N.C.
"Temperatures have been good and we've had just enough rain," Blalock says. "Producers have had both a good spring and summer for grass. Cows have had plenty to eat going into the fall calving season."
Add to that the fact that cattle prices are about as high as he's ever seen and Blalock says that means cattlemen can afford to smile a bit this year.
But although the rain has been good for growing grass, it hasn't been good for getting hay up. In his area of eastern North Carolina, many cattle producers are also tobacco growers and that means they have a conflict when it comes time to getting hay up. They're usually harvesting tobacco at the same time they need to be getting their hay ready for the winter.
"One thing that growers need to be doing at this time of year is following the weather closely," he says. "When producers get a spell of three or four days where rain isn't expected they need to be ready to get out there and get their hay put up. Another option they can consider is to invest in some high moisture plastic wrappers so they can put it up in high moisture conditions like haylage."
Producers also need to have seed on hand for grazing cover crops, so when the opportunity presents itself in September or October, they can get those crops planted in a timely manner.
North Carolina State University extension livestock nutritionist Matt Poore says, for producers who stockpile fescue, mid-August to mid-September is the best time to apply nitrogen (N). Stockpiling fescue, he explains, is applying N in the late summer and early fall to get grass to grow until early winter. This helps provide additional grazing into the winter.
While the mid-August and mid-September time frame is best, additional N in October can still promote grass growth if Mother Nature cooperates and you are fortunate to have enough rain.
Poore says you should apply about 50-100 pounds of N and suggests ammonium nitrate is usually the best source. Check with your local extension agent about this in your situation.
Taking stock of stock
Poore tells cattle producers to keep several points in mind as temperatures drop.
1) Feed requirements go up in winter. That means you need to make sure you have enough feed on hand. This is especially important since it is easy to underestimate the amount of hay you have on hand and run out of it during the winter.
2) In addition to hay quantity, make sure hay is good quality. Have your hay quality tested early so you can come up with a complete plan for feeding throughout the winter.
3) Have the appropriate feed supplements on hand.
4) It may sound simple, but make sure you feed your cows enough. As producers shift the cattle from grass to hay, the hay is usually lower quality, he says. That means cattle need to eat more of it.
5) Put out enough hay so all the cattle get enough to eat. If you skimp on the hay you put out, the weaker cows may continually get short-rationed.
6) Be aware that cows that are calving need better feed. Some producers are beginning to feed their cows a supplement that has fat in it, 30-60 days before they calve. The fat builds up and gets passed along to the calf. When the calf is born in the winter it can handle cold weather better.
7) Learn to score your cattle's body condition. Poore says you should be able to visually rate your cattle from 1-9, with one being very thin and 9 being obese. Cattle should have a body condition from 5-6. As winter approaches it is better to have the cattle with a higher rating of 6.