Strategies for feeding beef cows during the winter

Ashley Olson
UW Extension

Winter is in full swing with the white ground and freezing temperatures as I look out towards the cattle barn from my warm living room.

Feeding balanced rations to dry beef cows is crucial for optimum health at calving time.

During this time it is important to consider your winter beef cow ration fed to your dry cows so they are in top body condition and health at calving time. Calving is just a couple months away or less depending on when your operation starts spring calving.

Optimal body condition at calving is 5 to 6 on a scale from 1-9. The dry period and middle third of lactation are the easier and least costly times to add condition to the cow. Ideally, they should gain 1.5 pounds per day or ½ to ¾ points of body condition score per month. Generally a cow eats 2.0-2.5 percent of her body weight in dry matter each day. It is important to note that temperature plays a large role in a cow’s nutritional needs.

To have the most optimal and cost effective ration it is crucial to test your forages so you know what nutrient values you have to work with and if feed supplements are necessary. Work with your nutritionist for ration balancing.

With hay prices higher this season and other feedstuffs cheaper, this may be the year to consider substituting corn or other co-products to your winter cow ration, especially if you are short on hay. If you’re thinking of substituting corn into the diet a rule of thumb is to feed the cow at least one pound of hay per 100 pounds of body weight.

For the remainder of hay use the 1 pound of corn to 2 pounds of hay substitution guideline. Cows will act less hungry if they get fed 10-15 pounds of hay compared to reducing it more.

To help determine if this is could be a cost saving measure one can utilize the “Hay-Corn Substitution Calculator” for beef winter cow rations found on the UW-Extension WI Beef Information Center website under the Decision Tools and Software tab.

There are other tools for evaluating feeds and rations on this tab as well. Remember, the output is only as good as the information entered and cow response to intake and feed can vary.

There are other factors to keep in mind during winter feeding. Things to consider include adequate bunk space of 26-30 inches per cow and water consumption. Decreased water consumption due to an iced over stock tank can decrease feed intake. Also make sure hay waste is kept to a minimum with proper feeding equipment in the cow yard or barn.

In summary, a balanced ration will help get your beef cows through winter and be at optimum body condition and health at calving season. For more information about the beef industry, visit the Wisconsin Beef Information Center at or contact your local extension office.

Olson is the UW Extension Agriculture Educator in Vernon County