By Harold Harpster
Even if you escaped the severe drought in the Midwest and Southwest, you won't escape all of its effects. Feed costs top the worry list for most cattlemen.
Corn at $7.50 $150-plus "average" hay take the shine off high beef prices. Given that feed situation, the first decision for some probably is: "Should I try to hang onto these cows through the winter?"
Most beef industry crystal ball gazers say: Yes you should, if at all possible! They predict excellent profitability starting in fourth-quarter 2013 and lasting for several years – if we're blessed with more normal crop growing conditions!
So, for those hanging in there this winter, take a hard look at what you have at least some control over. You'll find at least a point or two that'll help.
1. Help your herd weather the chill: Weathermen talk about "wind chill" or "real feel" temperatures. Cattle experience that "real feel" more than you do.
At a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and with a 5 mph wind, the wind chill temperature is 3 degrees. But when the breeze whips up to 20 mph, wind chill plummets to a minus 10 degrees!
If you've worked outside with a wet coat or soaked boots, you know how precipitation (especially mud) chills to the bone. It does the same to animal hair coats.
The "lower critical temperature" of beef cattle is the temperature below which energy intake must increase to maintain body temperature. The LCT of a cow with a wet hair coat is around 58 degrees. That same cow, with a dry winter coat, has an LCT of 32 degrees. If she has an extra heavy coat, it's more like 18 degrees.
Minimal shelter that serves as a windbreak, such as a woodlot, can significantly decrease cow cold stress. It doesn't have to be fancy.
Cows can withstand a couple cold days with no change in their feeding program. But for sustained periods of cold, wet and windy days, 10% to 50% more energy should be fed.
Just don't suddenly offer a slug of grain to cows that haven't been adapted to it. That'll invite rumen acidosis.
2. Water is a major ingredient: Fresh water is just as important now as it was when it was 90 degrees in the shade! Cows that have calved and are milking heavily have especially critical water needs.
Remember, dirty water – all too prevalent on many farms – can decrease performance and carry disease organisms even during winter. Forget about snow and ice intake; it's close to zero.
3. Remember minor ingredients: A good mineral/vitamin mix is critical year-around. While there are many excellent commercial products, producers are highly successful with home-made mixes. The recipe: equal parts of trace-mineral salt, limestone, dicalcium phosphate, and magnesium oxide (with variable amounts of dry molasses, depending on intake).
Approved feed digestive stimulants like Rumensin are effective in improving feed utilization and decreasing costs. Daily feeding in a small amount of grain mix is most effective with brood cows.
4. Eliminate the loafers: Hopefully, you conducted your pregnancy checks last fall and are convinced that all the cows are bred. Remember, though, cows can abort at any time; so keep an eye out for those returning to heat and cull them.
Early winter is often a time of high cull cow prices. If you notice a large number of cycling cows, it's time to investigate why.
5. Don't forget your "sideliners": These are cattle that may escape your attention because they aren't doing much for the bottom line at this time of year – like a sidelined football player. Poor care now will limit their profitability when called on later this year.
Herd bulls are a significant investment. Unfortunately, bulls tend to be relegated to second-class status once breeding season is over. Be particularly aware of bulls in poor body condition. It won't be long before turn-out time arrives once again.
Young, growing bulls can be stunted if not properly fed. Most should continue to gain about 1.5 pounds per day through winter. That won't happen if you feed them broomstick hay.
Think about bull winter shelter, too. A "damaged" bull (with frozen testicles) will require a two-month recovery to produce normal sperm amounts and quality.
Replacement heifers need to be kept growing at about 1.5 pounds per day. A heifer should weigh 60% of her mature weight at first breeding and be bred by 14 months of age so she calves as a two-year-old.
Harpster is a newly retired Penn State University animal scientist and a beef producer.