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Cows and calf in the winter time

Supplementation is defined as a part of a whole or, in the nutrition world, something that can be added to make up for a deficiency or complete the diet in beef cattle systems. When the forage base of a diet alone does not meet animal nutritional demands, additional supplementation is often required. Cows in most production systems require some form of supplementation during the winter in order to meet demands for pregnancy, lactation, and/or maintenance. Understanding animal nutrient requirements, forage nutritive value, and various winter supplementation strategies can help improve herd production and better optimize investments in managing annual cow carrying costs.

Selecting a Supplement

Cow-Calf Winter FeedingThe following are key items that producers have to consider when selecting a supplement:

Understand forage nutritional value. This is the most important step in understanding if the forage base alone meets nutritional needs or if additional supplementation is required. Conducting a forage analysis provides valuable nutritional information, which can be used to determine the appropriate amounts of supplementation if it is needed. This can also help identify a feasible supplementation strategy for the individual operation. Without a forage analysis, a producer is simply guessing if their strategy meets the needs of their herd.

Cow age and stage of production. Nutritional needs increase as cows approach late gestation and calving. During the first 60 days after calving, nutritional demands reach their peak (i.e. peak lactation). Nutritional demands are also increased for younger cattle (first calf heifers) and for older cattle (10+ years old).

Cow body condition score. Does the animal need to maintain or gain body weight? Producers should body condition score their cattle at key times in the production cycle, such as at weaning, 60 days prior to calving, at calving, and prior to breeding. At weaning and at 60 days before calving both represent times where the supplementation strategy can be adjusted to add daily gain more efficiently to the animals compared to periods with higher nutrient demands.

Winter Feed Supplementation Strategies

Daily-fed supplements. Commercial feed blends or byproduct feedstuffs are commonly used as winter feed supplements in beef cow-calf operations. These ingredients generally contain a combination of energy–generally expressed as total digestible nutrients (TDN)–and protein (crude protein, CP), which can be used to supplement low-to-moderate quality forage.

Understanding ingredient composition and quality is important to determine the appropriate feed supplementation level used in daily feed allocation. Producers should review feed tag information to understand the product’s quality or ask for a feed analysis to determine feed value. This information, along with forage nutritive value information, can be used to develop an appropriate supplementation strategy for the operation.

Reduced-frequency supplementation. Supplementing with various feedstuffs on a less frequent basis is a common question from a labor standpoint in many beef cow-calf operations. Feeding supplement every other day, or at another defined frequency, is sometimes a strategy used by producers to reduce the time spent supplementing cattle during the winter months. Some feedstuffs are more suited for less frequent feeding than others.

Low-starch feeds may be an option for feeding every other day without altering animal performance when fed with moderate-quality hay. These low-starch feeds contain more digestible fiber, such as soyhulls and corn gluten. When high-starch feeds, such as corn, are fed infrequently, this causes disruption of forage intake and digestibility (table 1). Thus, supplements containing mostly starch-based ingredients may not fit this strategy as readily. Producers should follow the label instructions on commercial supplements as a guide for feeding frequency. This is especially important if a product contains an ingredient such as an ionophore or antibiotic in order to maintain product effectiveness and safety.


Table 1. Examples of Fiber and Starch-based Feedstuffs

Corn gluten feedWheat and wheat byproducts
Whole cottonseed and cotton byproducts


Self-limiting supplements. Self-limiting feed contains one or more ingredients that when added to a feed blend or product help control cattle feed consumption to a desired target level. Products often used as self-limiting feeds include salt-limited commodity feed blends, liquid supplements, and cooked or pressed tubs. Producers should determine if the intake on the product will meet deficiencies in the diet appropriately. With low-quality forage in the diet, many self-limiting products will not meet animal nutritional needs when fed alone, especially for lactating animals. In this case, an additional form of supplementation is often required. More information on self-limiting feeds can be found in the Alabama Extension publication Self-Limiting Feeds for Beef Cattle, ANR-2669.

Using Grazed Forages as a Supplement During Winter

Using forages as part of a supplementation program is a less conventional approach that feed supplementation. However, high-quality forages can be used to supplement lower-quality grazed or stored forage resources during the winter months. High-quality winter forage systems generally used in Alabama in winter include cool-season annual grasses, legumes, or brassicas.

Limit grazing. Limit grazing is a practice that allows for allocation of animals to high-quality pasture for only a few hours per day. By limiting time on pasture, forage resources are able to be stretched while also supplying high-quality nutrients to the animal’s diet. This can potentially improve digestion of the base forage in the diet and improve the overall plane of nutrition for beef cattle.

Creep grazing. Creep grazing allows animals with the greatest nutritional requirement to access high-quality forage while restricting those with lower requirements. This provides a closer match of forage nutritive value to animal needs. In most cow-calf operations using creep grazing, calves are allowed access to high-quality pasture through a creep gate or small access point that excludes cows from entering. When calves are done grazing, they can return to the cow through this opening in the fence. Creep grazing is also a grazing management strategy that is used to more efficiently use limited acreage of high-quality forage.

More Information

There are many supplementation strategies which can be used to carry a cow herd through the winter. Always evaluate forage and supplementation strategies carefully to determine which nutrients are needed to overcome a deficiency. Producers can contact the Alabama Extension animal science and forage professional serving their area for questions related to herd supplementation strategies during the winter months.