Caring For Cattle In Winter

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Mature cattle can be wintered on good wheat or barley straw.A low-lying, brushy area provides some shelter for the herd.

T.J. Gilles is the owner of Spring Creek Ranch in Montana . . . where,
as he says, “winter grass is as nutritionless as diet cola and/or
covered with snow”. The following advice — although gathered over 20 years
of wintering cattle in that harsh climate and specifically applicable
to “Big Sky” country — should help other northern stock raisers bring
their herds through the coming cold weather in good condition.

Here, in the northern U.S., winter isn’t a comfortable time for range cattle . . . which are protected from the elements only by hide and fur. Still, a good wintering program can make the cold season bearable for your stock and-in any event-is necessary to keep the herd healthy and productive.

Caring For Cattle in Winter

Cattle Feed Supply

The first step in any wintering program is the acquisition of feed. You should figure at least a ton of roughage (hay, straw, or silage) per bovine, regardless of age. . . because younger cattle-which are attempting to grow, not merely to maintain themselves-may eat more in proportion to their size than full-grown cows.

Your choice of feed depends partly on circumstances. It’s impossible — for instance — to put up your own corn silage without a lot of expensive, specialized equipment . . . and the silage you buy is usually laced with chemicals: pesticides, herbicides, and preservatives. You may-however-be able to raise, mow, and bale your own hay . . . or hire the work done.

If not, July and August — when the supply of this feed is most ample and varied and the prices lowest — are the best months to boy.

I prefer grass hay to alfalfa . . . because there’s no risk of bloat, and because freshly weaned calves take more readily to a dried form of the same food they’ve been nibbling all summer.

Cows three or more years of age can manage most of the winter — if necessary — on good wheat straw or barley straw fed as a substitute for hay.

Incidentally, the stubble that remains in a harvested field is good forage . . . and you might want to take pressure off your pastures in the fall by grazing cattle on crop residues. Neighboring farmers may let you feed your stock on their land in return for a pittance or perhaps an exchange of labor.

Meanwhile, you’ll need to plan for the management of your herd when cold weather settles in to stay . . . so here’s some suggestions for the wintering of calves and older cattle.


The young of dairy breeds are, of course, taken from the cows very early so that humans can get at the mothers’ milk. Beef calves are weaned later . . . generally in the fall, at 5 to 8 months of age. Many commercial ranchers also brand, castrate, and vaccinate young animals at this time. We don’t, though, because all these procedures are traumatic to calves and frequently superfluous. Brands-first of all-offer little protection against theft, since most rustling takes the form of on-the-spot nocturnal butchering. If your neighbors are honest, your only real need is for individualized ear tags to establish ownership of animals that cross fencelines.

Ear tags come in myriad sizes, shapes, and colors, so that each stock owner can choose a distinctive type which allows herd members to be identified at a distance. The best I’ve come across — Y-Tex “Lone Star” brand — cost 50 cents apiece and are attached with an applicator that may go for up to $5.00. You can add your own letters and numbers to the tags, and it’s wise to keep them on record — along with other pertinent data such as parentage and birth dates — in case a question of owner-ship arises.

Castration is no better an idea than branding. In addition to causing human male witnesses to walk oddly for a few days, it’s very hard on the patient and could cause death if done improperly or using unsanitary methods.

One argument advanced for the operation is that steers make superior eating. Actually, though, young bulls can be slaughtered at any time up to 16 months of age without any deterioration in the quality of their meat. In recent tests at Montana State University, bull calves which were given no growth stimulants produced more and better beef than did steer calves either with or without the help of such chemicals.

Another reason frequently given for castration is that it prevents unwanted matings in the herd. By the time bull calves reach puberty, however, your cows ought to be safely in calf . . . so young males need only be segregated from early-maturing heifers of similar age.

Finally, there’s the minor but (we think) superfluous stress currently put on vaccination. Sick animals should be cared for, certainly, but many “preventive” shots are merely attempts to compensate for overcrowding or improper nutrition. In particular, scours (diarrhea) — the most common ailment of calves — occurs in so many strains that no vaccine can prevent them all. The best protection is careful feeding.

That leaves weaning as the only unpleasant experience (and even that is bad enough) our calves must undergo come fall. Once the young are sequestered from their mothers, they should have access to plentiful supplies of water and good grass hay . . . the feed that seems to be easiest on their digestive systems, which get quite a jolt in the switch from warm milk. Hay can be put in feed bunks or spread on the ground. Just be sure to distribute the ration ‘SO that all the animals have a fair chance at it, or the bigger and more aggressive types will crowd out the meek.

It’s widely recommended that calves be fed hay only for at least two weeks after weaning. I’ve found, however, that Charolais crosses can be given grain after less than a week, and perhaps the same is true of Holsteins and other large breeds. Owners of such animals might try some cautious experimentation to test my hunch.

After the transition to a solid diet, I put calves on one of three basic rations . . . depending on what use I plan to make of the maturing livestock the following spring.

[1] Animals which are to be moved onto lush pasture can be wintered on hay exclusively. They’ll gain less than a pound a day on that diet, but should grow like mad as soon as they hit the fresh grass later on.

[2] Heifers which are potential breeding stock, or bull and steer calves being held to go onto normal or below-average pasture, should be fed enough so that they’ll gain 1- to 1-1/2 pounds a day . . . which means they’ll need a grain ration in addition to all the hay they want. After the hay-only orientation period, the supplement should be introduced and its amount increased gradually until each calf’s daily portion is about one-half of 1 percent of its body weight (i.e., a 500 pound animal gets 2-1/2 pounds of grain).

Rolled oats or barley are recommended as grain supplements. If these cereals are fed whole, the quantities should be increased more slowly. It’s also possible to feed surplus wheat — coarsely ground — mixed 50/50 with barley. A higher proportion of wheat, however, is an invitation to founder.

Feed your livestock at their own pace. If the animals become too fleshy or start to develop potbellies, they’re eating too much. If they founder, you blew it.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb to guide your management of young heifers: Those of British breeds — Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, Jersey, and Guernsey — should be fed to reach 600 to 700 pounds at one year of age. The target for larger-framed breeds such as Charolais, Holstein, and Brown Swiss is 650 to 800 pounds. Caution: Overly fat females develop a metabolism which leads to difficulties in conception, calving, and milk production.

[3] Animals which will be slaughtered the following spring, summer, or early fall are gradually worked into a grain ration equal to a daily 1 percent of their body weight (a 5OO pounder gets 5 pounds of grain).

You’ll likely be dealing with calves of varying ages and sizes, and will have to shoot for an average when you figure cereal rations. Again, the bigger youngsters are apt to throw their weight around and get more than their share. To prevent this, and to keep the feed out of the dirt, grain should be placed in some sort of bunk or trough rather than on the ground. Each calf should have a minimum of 18 to 24 inches of bunk space to ensure equal opportunity.

Finally, calves (and grown cattle too) should have access to iodized salt, and some type of mineral block. Both are bargains: A 50-pound chunk should cost less than $2.00 at your local feedstore or grain elevator and will last for years on a small farm.

Feed tends to be deficient in the same minerals that are lacking in an area’s soil (around here, it’s phosphorus). Check with county agents, nearby farmers, or even feed dealers to learn the special deficiencies of your locality. Cattle which eat only lightly but lick ravenously at the salt block, or take to chewing wood, are mineral-starved.


Proper wintering of cows is a leading factor in the elimination of stillbirths, hard labors, and mastitis . . . and a good program depends on the realization that the needs of breeding stock differ at various stages of life.

First, two- and three-year-old bred heifers have a high energy requirement because both they and their unborn young ant growing. These animals should be separated from older cows, which enjoy a definite edge in the competition for feed.

On the other hand, fleshy, full-grown cows may lose 100 to I50 pounds over a winter without sacrificing the health of mother or calf. Indeed, weight watching can help to prevent calving or milking problems. Animals in this group can be maintained on a daily 15 pounds of hay or straw per 1,000 pounds of body weight.

The picture changes, however, during late pregnancy. According to James Wiltbank, animal nutritionist at Colorado State University, a cow should gain weight during the final month prior to calving. This is because the mother loses up to 140 pounds at delivery . . . and at the same time, her body is thrust into the tasks of milk production, recovery from giving birth, and continuation of the cycle so she’ll come in heat and conceive again. The result is that her energy needs double during this period.

Our cows are given straw free choice most of the winter, along with a daily two pounds per head of range pellets which contain 22 percent protein. We save our best hay until a month or so before calving begins, and continue to feed both (the hay and the pellets) until late spring.

Even then, our troubles aren’t entirely over because spring grass is deceptive. The cows are thrilled over the green blades and eat so voraciously that they may refuse hay. Early grass, however, can be 80 to 90 percent water and has very little nutritional value. Fortunately, cattle rarely turn down range cake (a commercial protein supplement compressed into block form), which can be a real salvation when fresh shoots start coming up.

Be sure your brood cows have access to iodized salt at all times. Lack of iodine in the herd’s diet can mean stillborn, weak, or hairless calves. The young can also be dead or feeble at birth because of a deficiency of vitamin A. Leafy, green hay is a good source, as are dehydrated alfalfa pellets and some commercial range pellets.

Water Supply

The need for water is often neglected by stock growers, many of whom rely on snow for their cattle’s winter drink. The chill of snow or melted ice, however, cause the animals to decrease their intake, and valuable body heat is wasted on raising the temperature of the freezing liqued. If you’re carrying water to your stock, take the extra trouble to warm it.

Livestock Shelter

Livestock do require shelter, of course, but surprisingly little, even in the coldest areas. A creekbed lined with bushes and trees and located down out of the wind is the only protection our land offers, and in about 20 years of wintering cattle I can’t remember that we’ve ever lost an animal to illness or exposure.

If cattle are being wintered in a small, confined area (make it big enough to give them plenty of exercise), a solid wall windbreak can be a lifesaver. A shed or barn is fine, too, if you don’t mind hand-cleaning it the following spring. We use our barn as a hospital for sick animals (which should always be removed from the herd until they’ve regained their health), but don’t house cattle there on a regular basis.

When calves are hit with the season’s first snowstorm or cold spell, I spread dry straw for them to bed on. Some folks also provide a layer of straw or wood ships as bedding for young cattle when the earth is bare and frozen. Straw is too good as feed to be spread indiscriminately, though, and we prefer to save it for abnormally wet or cold periods.

As you can see, we don’t pamper our stock even in Montana’s harsh climate. Healthy range cattle are hardy creatures, and careful feeding — plus a bare minimum of shelter — should bring your herd through the winter in good shape.

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