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Winter Feeding | Winter 2005 Out Here Magazine

Livestock exposed to winter's cold, wet, and windy conditions most likely need a high-energy grain source, such as corn, in addition to good-quality hay.

Get your livestock the right nutrition in winter weather

By Donna Alvis-Banks

Photography by Getty Images

It's cold — just below freezing — and there's a driving sleet falling.

All we want to do is curl up in our warm, dry nest and pack away a bowl of buttered popcorn.

If they could talk, our livestock — whether a large herd of cattle or merely a couple of pleasure horses — would tell us they want the same thing.

Just kill the butter and leave the pop off the corn.

"Corn is the standard energy supplement," explains Dr. Darrell Rankins Jr., a professor and extension animal scientist at Alabama's Auburn University. "Typically, what we try to do is supplement some energy during the winter months. In addition to good-quality hay, livestock will need a high-energy grain source."

Farm animals don't really have an increased need for more minerals or vitamins during cold weather, provided they are fed good quality hay, Rankins says. If they are sheltered from the cold and wet, they may not need additional energy and/or protein supplements, either. Wet and windy conditions that leave animals soaked, however, means that they're getting no insulating factor from their hair. Then, they have to start using stored energy to keep themselves warm.

But how do you know if your animals' nutritional needs are being met?

Three words: "Test your hay."

"Absolutely. It's important," says Rankins, explaining that animals occasionally have different energy and protein needs.

"A cow nursing a baby calf will need 62 percent TDN — or total digestible nutrients — and 10½ percent protein," he notes. "If you have hay that's 58 percent TDN and 10½ percent protein, your nursing cow will need more energy. Say the hay is 56 percent TDN and 8 percent protein. Now we need both."

Extension services offer hay testing at a minimal cost, Rankins says. His agency charges $10 and it's $10 well spent. Once you know exactly what nutrients your animals are getting from their feed, you'll know what supplements they need.

"There's just a gamut of supplements people use," Dr. Rankins says, explaining that they include corn for energy, whole cottonseed for energy and protein, and cottonseed and soybean meal for protein. Commercially blended supplements offer both energy and protein in range pellets, blocks, and mixed feeds.

Beware of the dangers of over-supplementing, however. Consult your veterinarian for guidelines.

Rankins spends a good bit of time each winter fielding questions from people wanting to know how to best feed their livestock. The most frequent inquiry is, "What's the cheapest feed I can buy?"

"Cheapest is not always best," he warns. "You're after energy and protein, not just food."

Theoretically, your cow or horse could die of starvation with a full belly, if the animal is eating extremely low quality roughage. If the animal gets wet and cold and lacks the nutrients it needs to withstand the elements, winter spells trouble.

But most livestock withstand the cold pretty well, Rankins says. A diet that meets their energy and protein needs gives them a hoof up on Jack Frost.

Donna Alvis-Banks is a features reporter for the New River Bureau of The Roanoke (VA) Times.