Don’t Have a Cow!

— Written By Kim Tungate and last updated by

Here we are again with winter.  As temperatures drop we need to consider how to adjust diet and management practices for cows and heifers. First as temperatures drop cattle require more energy, especially when it’s cold AND rainy.  Feed requirements can increase by about 5-15% in these weather conditions and as the temperatures drop down into the 20’s.   An average cow will eat about 25-30 pounds of hay per day, but additional hay should be added as temperatures dip down below 30.  In fact for every degree below 32, an additional 1% should be added to the daily feed rations for the average cow. Cows will pay you back in giving extra milk for their calves or in breeding back sooner in the spring.


During January and February you also need to consider the nutrient requirement increase for pregnant and calving animals. This increase in requirements can be supplied through high quality hay (testing will reveal the quality), a grain-protein supplement, or grazing as it is available. 


Furthermore, ensure that there is plenty of clean water and minerals available. Since calving time is a stressful period, cows need a high magnesium mineral available. This mineral should be added to feed before calving and all through the spring.


Cows will eat what is most palatable first. Minerals may not taste as good as cottonseed meal, but they are necessary for good health. Also, high magnesium minerals are not very palatable; so mixing them with hot mix is a good way to ensure that cows consume an adequate amount of magnesium. Low quality hays require additional protein and/or energy added to meet the animal’s needs. This addition may be as corn, milo, wheat, oats, cottonseed meal, or soybean meal.


Cattle should be observed closely during calving season. It does not hurt to check more often than twice daily if possible. Having a pasture close to your house or barn will make it easy to watch over the calving cows. Place heifers calving for the first time in a pasture where they can be easily observed, since 80 percent of your calving problems are likely to occur in this group.


Try to avoid calving at night by feeding a supplement late in the afternoon. Available data indicate cows that eat in late afternoon are more likely to calve during the daylight hours.


Given the cold weather during this time of year, calving cows, especially the heifers, should be watched closely. Heifers will generally have more calving trouble given their size and lack of prior calving. A number of calves are lost at calving because producers wait too long to help a cow or heifer give birth.  If calving problems occur and no solution is found within 30 minutes, call your veterinarian. He/she has the expertise and the equipment to properly address the problem.


If you have any questions about calving cows, please contact Kim Tungate at the Lee County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension at 919-775-5624.


Kim Tungate is the Field Crops, Livestock, and Local Foods Agent for Lee County