Feeding and managing livestock over winter

Feeding and managing your cattle herd and sheep flock can be challenging at times, especially when dealing with cycles of flood and drought conditions. There are a lot of management decisions to be made, many of which are time sensitive. Couple those management decisions with climatic conditions, pest, and disease control and you may find yourself chasing your tail more often than not.

In cold and wet conditions, stock will use energy to keep warm. In drought conditions, where stock may have experienced under-nutrition, they do not have the fat reserves to handle the increased energy requirements.

Be prepared with how you can feed and manage livestock over the winter period:

  • Be vigilant on the changing energy requirements of your pregnant, lactating, young and growing livestock
  • Feed budgeting is an essential tool to assist you in making timely livestock feed management decisions and prepare you for seasonal feed shortages
  • Calculate your feed requirement for the winter period and be certain that you have enough access to feed to get you through what is shaping up to be a tough season
  • Feed gaps are common during winter, that is, demand for feed outweighs pasture quality and growth rate. To reduce the impact of this gap some form of supplementary feeding is required
  • To get the most out of winter forages, introduce new feed slowly when putting stock on winter crops.
  • The quality of hay and feed in general is variable, there is some good quality hay on the market, but a wet hay making season can result in higher volumes of water damaged hay hitting the market. In this case, feed testing is advised. Stressed or failed crops turned into hay could potentially pose nitrate or prussic acid concerns and levels should be checked before feeding
  • Low quality hay or silage will not maintain production. To avoid livestock losing condition, balance nutrition and cost to feed additional energy and protein to meet livestock requirements
  • Ensure your drenching and vaccination program is up to date
  • Provide shelter from harsh weather conditions, livestock use more energy in cold weather to keep themselves warm
  • Monitor your pregnant livestock regularly to ensure that you pick up on any health and welfare issues early, allowing you to lessen the impact they may have on productivity
  • If necessary, reduce livestock numbers via a staged reduction plan to match feed availability. Cattle can be removed from the property permanently via sale or transported to temporary agistment.

Winter feed requirements for breeding stock

Pregnant stock are particularly at risk and are the most susceptible to the impact of feed gaps due to their relatively high feed and energy requirements. Sudden feed changes or prolonged feed gaps can lead to starvation, pregnancy toxaemia, and birthing difficulties. These conditions often result in death.

Pregnancy Toxaemia is caused by low levels of glucose in the blood which adversely affects brain and nervous system function. It most commonly occurs in ewes and cows during the last month of pregnancy, when there is a high demand for glucose (energy) from the rapidly growing foetuses.

As a rule of thumb:

  • a twin bearing ewe should be receiving 1.6kg of cereal grain per day (in combination with a roughage source) to meet its nutritional requirements in late pregnancy
  • the daily energy intake needed for a freshly calved cow or heifer with a calf at foot is double that required to maintain a dry cow. The growth of young cattle can be stunted reducing their growth potential and future saleability.

Farmer delivering feed to cows

Supplementary feeding livestock over winter

In cold conditions it is advisable to increase feed by 20%. It is difficult to get ewes to physically eat more grain while heavily pregnant, especially without inducing grain poisoning. The simplest and most effective way to increase their energy intake is to put more good quality hay out into the paddocks during the wet and cold weather.

Hay is also good to feed to cattle in cold weather as the rumination of fibrous, bulky feed produces heat as a by-product that helps to keep the animal warm. However, it is worth remembering that some hay is very poor quality, meaning it is high in fibre but low in energy and protein which are the most important factors when supplementary feeding stock.

So while increasing the amount of hay is a good idea as a short term measure during the cold wet weather, you may need to do some calculations to work out if you are spending your money in the best way to meet the nutritional needs of the animal.

Also consider the quality of the supplement being provided - this becomes particularly important in late pregnancy and into lactation when green feed is short and limited. Including high quality/ high energy feeds such as grain, pellets, dried distillers grain, lupins etc into the diet will give much better performance than hay alone. For further information on feeding livestock during winter, please refer to the following guides:

Any form of new stock feed, whether it is pasture, crop, hay, or ration, needs to be introduced to your livestock slowly with a good source of roughage from hay, straw or dry standing feed. When supplementary feeding, it is even important to shandy feeds between batches, even when it is the same product. If you have any concerns when supplementary feeding livestock contact your rural advisor, LLS livestock officer or district vet.

Where stock have been off green feed for over three months or being moved to confinement feeding, discuss an animal health program and the need for additional vaccinations or vitamin supplementation with your livestock officer

Winter 2023 Updates

With winter upon us, pasture quality becomes a priority. Wet, cold conditions have not been the ideal start to winter, with delays to winter sowing and pasture growth rates slowed. An abundance of summer dry stand feed has also hampered the efforts of our reliable winter feed such as clover and rye grass, getting a good start. Feed testing in many regions is showing that although there appears to be good feed sitting in paddocks and plenty of it, the quality of this feed is not matching the nutritional requirements of livestock. There are several explanations for the current condition of our pastures, predominantly the rate of growth, previous wet weather and cold conditions coupled with the price/availability of fertiliser has meant that the feed is falling short nutritionally of where it needs to be to maintain production.

As our pastures don’t seem to be meeting nutritional requirements at present, it is advised that you consider some form of supplementary feeding to boost your livestock’s health and condition. During pregnancy and lactation the energy demands of our livestock fluctuates. Demand for energy increases during gestation, peaking during early lactation. This demand steadily decreases from mid to late lactation as the offspring begin to pick at feed on offer, reducing the pressure on the mother. It is important to know the stage of reproduction you are accommodating for, to help determine just how much feed they need to be consuming and whether or not there is enough feed sitting in the paddock for them.

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