Planning for fall and winter feeding programs |

Planning for fall and winter feeding programs

Greg Lardy
for Tri-State Livestock News

Fall is right around the corner, so now is the time to evaluate your winter feeding programs. In this article I’ll take you through a simple five-step process for completing this important activity before the snow flies.

Step 1. Inventory the feeds you have on hand and sample for nutrient analysis.

This step should be done with enough attention to detail and precision to give meaningful information. Some of the items which should be included in the inventory are:

• number of acres of the following which will be available for winter grazing: dormant native range or other perennial forages, annual forages for fall and winter grazing, crop residues such as corn stalks, soybean stubble, small grain stubble, hay regrowth, etc.

• harvested forages including hays and silages – this should include a description of the forage and an estimate of the amount (e.g. number of bales and average weight, number of tons of silage)

• grains, byproducts, and other feeds currently on hand (in bushels or tons)

A handy reference which includes useful formulas for estimating the amount of various feeds in different types of storage facilities (stacks, silos, and bins), is at If you do not have access to the internet, contact me and I will be happy to mail a copy to you. With a little bit of effort and time spent measuring, you can come up with good estimates of the amount of feedstuffs you have in storage.

Nutrient analysis is another important part of this process, especially for harvested forages. Accurate nutrient analysis of grazed forages is more difficult; but you can contact land grant university extension specialists for estimates in your area.

Step 2. Inventory current herd numbers.

This step is fairly straightforward. It should include counting the numbers of animals and the number of days, weeks, or months you intend to feed each group. Here is a short list of possible categories.

• mature cows, 2nd trimester of pregnancy

• mature cows, 3rd trimester of pregnancy

• mature cows, early lactation

• bred heifers, 2nd trimester of pregnancy

• bred heifers, 3rd trimester of pregnancy

• first calf heifers, early lactation

• yearling heifers

• herd bulls

• weaned calves

Again, if you like, you can break down the information into more specific categories for greater accuracy; but the above categories should give you a good ballpark estimate of nutrient needs.

An often overlooked step in the planning process is estimating cow body condition to determine which cows need a better quality diet to ensure they are at the proper Body Condition Score (BCS) at spring calving. Older cows should be at BCS 5 at calving time and younger cows (two- and three-year-olds) should be at BCS 6 due to their increased nutrient requirements. It is much easier to take steps now to manage body condition than it will be in January. At this point, there is still ample time to utilize other strategies, such as early weaning, to improve cow condition before winter sets in as well.

Step 3. Identify feed resources for specific groups.

This next step requires some planning on your part. In some respects, it gets at the art of animal husbandry and feeding and will test your organizational skills. Which animals should get higher quality feedstuffs and when should they get it? Which animals can afford to lose weight or condition by utilizing the poor quality forages on hand?

In general, mature cows in mid-gestation and in moderate to good condition will probably be one group that won’t need a lot of special treatment. If supplies of good-quality forages are tight, consider your culling options and then ensure that the classes of cattle which most need the higher quality forages (e.g. two- and three-year old cows), get the better quality forages.

You can do this on a piece of paper or a computer spreadsheet. I prefer the spreadsheet because you can easily incorporate formulas and let the spreadsheet do the math.

Step 4. Identify forage supply or nutrient deficiencies.

In most cases, this will require the use of either a ration balancing program or access to a bulletin or book with nutrient requirements for each class of animal. You can access tables of nutrient requirements at: or use a computer ration balancing program.

If you don’t have ration balancing software, you can access an easy to use spreadsheet template from Oklahoma State University at this web address:

In this step, your goal is to develop a list of animal groups which are short of forage nutrients. Then calculate the total pounds, tons, or acres needed to overcome these deficiencies.

Step 5. Identify the most economical alternative for filling the gaps or deficiencies.

If you are a good planner or have had an exceptional year for growing good-quality forages, this may be a simple task. If forages and feedstuffs are in short supply, as they are in many areas this year, this process becomes more difficult and time consuming. Take into account the current market outlook for supplemental feeds and whether or not that feed should be purchased now or later. Each individual situation will be different.


Significant drought is currently occurring in many of areas in the region, so it is more important than ever that you time the time now to go through this planning exercise. You will have a head start on your winter feeding program and be prepared for contingencies when they arise and have a more pleasant and profitable winter feeding season.