A Christmas snow falls gently to the frozen ground. You know the type I am thinking of–big fluffy flakes that sparkle as they gently land on tree branches, grass blades, and the backs of the furry cows heavy with calf. It’s the kind of snow that you can catch on your tongue and clings to your eyelashes. This kind of snow rarely happens where I come from in the windy patch of East Central Wyoming. Usually snow blows in sideways as tiny hard flakes that sting as they beat across the exposed skin of your face. I relish in the quietness of the morning and listen to the quiet snorts of hungry cattle as they contentedly sift their way through the green alfalfa hay, looking for the tastiest morsels. A few call out with low moos to their friends, sharing a holiday greeting or a gentle good morning. It sure feels good to be home on the range for the holidays.
A plan to provide sufficient nutrition to cattle and other livestock in the winter is key to maintain healthy animals that can survive weather, calving, and rebreeding. Animals need to go into the winter in fairly good condition and receive good maintenance throughout to ensure a successful calf crop and rebreed period in the spring/summer. The majority of cattle that do not rebreed each season is due to inadequate fall and winter nutrition. Most nutrition plans involve adding a trace-mineral supplement to native pastures and possibly a protein supplement if native grasses become too dry. If native grasses are not available due to drought, overgrazing, or crusted over snow cover, ranchers will need to provide other means of nutrition through harvested good quality forages. Other times to supplement cattle, are on very cold and windy days where nutritional needs are higher due to wind chills. During these extremely cold times, cows should be given all the hay they will clean up and access to windbreaks is very important.
If pastures are managed property, most cattle will not lose weight in the fall and into the winter. Cattle actually generally gain weight, after the weaning of the calves and go into winter with fat reserves. However these properly maintained forages can be deficient in trace minerals. Salt should almost always be provided. As well as fresh, clean water. Many times the mineral deficiencies in native range forage will greatly depend on the geographic area, so know the mineral content of your grasses and plan accordingly. Native dryland pastures do hold their mineral content through out the winter, especially when compared to cultivated or irrigated pastures and crop residues. Another good reason to know the mineral content of your grazed forage.
Just remember it is most profitable to match the cattle or your livestock to the feed source, whether that is native dryland grasses or crop residues, than it is to try to create a feeding program for livestock that do not do well in their own environment. Much of the west is high in elevation and cold in temperatures. Selecting animals that are acclimated for these areas will help your winter feeding program be economical and easy to plan.
My black and white, spotted, dog runs through the herd, her breathing coming out in big puffs of steam. She smells the morning air and the cattle regard her with mild interest. In the distance frosty trees around the homestead can be seen through the falling snow. Clouds dip low in the sky, heavy with snow and, just like the holidays, have descended onto the ranch.