The summer forage is drying out and losing nutritional value, the snow is beginning to fly, and we are starting to feed our cattle. As winter starts, we are all ensuring that our cattle are still getting the feed they need to maintain a good body condition score. In general, a cow will eat about 2%-2.5% of her body weight in dry matter per day. For the majority of Gunnison ranchers, this feed comes in the form of grass hay.
The way we deliver feed to our cattle varies. I am sure many of you have seen the variety of methods that are used to feed cattle. Some producers like ourselves feed small square bales (think 60 pounds). We either put the truck in 4-low and let it drive itself while someone throws bales off the back or have someone drive for us. If you see our old Ford stuck in the ditch – just wave at us – the dog is terrible at steering… Some ranchers use round bales (about 1000 pounds) and feeders off of their tractors. There is also an option to feed large square bales (1200 pounds) with feeders. Regardless of what type of bale we feed, the goal is to spread it out so that all the cattle can get an even feeding. We want even the more timid cows to be able to get as full of a feeding as the pushier cows.
Cattle are ruminants – and as such they can digest roughage as a main source of nutrients. Cattle are able to utilize many types of feed or even byproducts – making them the ultimate recyclers. They are able to eat spent brewers’ grains, corn husks, and many other byproducts. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organizations concluded that 86% of what we feed to cattle is inedible to humans. Cattle require five key nutrients to live: energy, protein, water, minerals, and vitamins. Energy accounts for the most expense and volume in cattle feeding programs. Energy is required to maintain normal cattle functions – such as feed digestion, lactation, reproduction, and growth in cattle. Similar to humans, protein is also required for cattle’s reproduction, maintenance and growth. Protein is a component of muscles, the nervous system, and connective tissues. Water is obviously an essential nutrient. It accounts for 50-80% of the animal’s live weight. Cows require at least 17 minerals, which are divided into two different categories – macrominerals and microminerals. The seven macrominerals are required in large quantities, while the ten microminerals are only required in trace amounts. Just like humans, vitamins are also required for cattle to survive.
Similar to humans, if cattle are unable to meet their nutritional requirements from feed alone, we can feed them supplements. Most ranchers feed free choice salt, but additionally we can feed mineral block, protein tubs, or many other supplements. These supplements can be helpful if we need to increase the body condition score of a cow, or help fill a nutritional requirement that’s being missed.
There are several schools of thought for times of day for feeding. Many producers feed later in the evening to give the cows an extra push of energy before the cold night. There are even some studies that night feeding will push the cows to have their babies in the day when it is nicer and warmer! Some producers prefer to feeding in the morning – which allows their cows all day to eat on it. When cows eat, they will not spend much time chewing. Their stomach is comprised of four stomachs – and this allows them to eat rapidly at first. They eat quickly, and later on in the day they will regurgitate it and re-chew the cud (the soft wads of regurgitated feed) – this is known as chewing their cud. Cattle spend approximately 35% to 40% of their day chewing their cud. This process helps the microbes break down the feed better. A happy cow is one who’s chewing her cud!
Whatever we feed, whenever we feed, it is very important that we do not make any sudden diet changes. Cows have sensitive stomachs and any sudden change can prove deadly. If we want to feed more in the colder months, we add feed very slowly. If we want to add a protein supplement to put on some weight before winter, we will do that over multiple days.
Winter is a busy season for ranchers in the valley. We get to use the hay we have spent all summer growing and then processing into bales. Next time you see the stark contrast of green hay on white snow, you can think of all the decisions that go into that one task.