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feeding milking cows

By Harry Brook

Feed was tight this winter and the cold spell in December, early January, certainly didn’t help the issue. Ruminants, such as cattle, are uniquely endowed with the ability to convert forage and fibre into useable energy and protein. They do this through their rumen, a large fermentation vat containing a huge variety of bacteria, fungi, and protozoans. They do the actual work of breaking down the fibre into energy and other nutrients. The protein content in feed is essential to provide nutrition to the rumen fauna as well as the cow.

Condition scoring cattle is a useful tool to estimate cow condition going into winter. This influences what you should feed prior to calving. Condition scoring is a hands-on method of estimating fat coverage over the short ribs, pin bones and either side of the tail head. It gives a reading as to how much fat coverage the cow is carrying. The score is either 1 to 5 on the Canadian scale. Ideally, you want your cow going into winter between a 3 and 3.5. You want them at around 3 at calving. Enough fat to allow for good milk production but not enough to restrict the birth canal and cause calving problems. If they enter winter with a bit of extra fat, that allows you to let them lose a bit of condition prior to calving and saves a bit on feeding costs.

Cows going into the winter in thin condition are very expensive, feed wise. A shortage of energy and protein can mean weak calves and problems at calving time. It can also result in reduced milk production and difficulties in rebreeding. It takes a lot of extra energy and protein to add condition in winter conditions. It is best to be done on pasture, prior to winter feeding.

As cattle move through pregnancy their nutritional demands increase. A cow in mid-pregnancy can get along with an average protein content of seven to seven and a half percent protein. A lot of the energy in the ration is tied up in fibre and the protein is largely needed to feed the rumen flora which break down the fibre into sugars to supply the energy. As the cow’s digestive system is basically a large fermentation vat, there is a lot of excess heat produced from fermentation,  that helps keep the animal warm in winter. However, once temperatures drop below -20˚C, additional energy is needed to keep the animal warm. A rule of thumb for really cold weather is an extra pound of good pellets or grain should be added for every 5˚C drop below -20˚C at midday.

Once a cow enters the last trimester of pregnancy, things start to ramp up, with the embryo making greater demands on the cow for nutrients. Just prior to calving, the fetus can be growing at up to a pound a day, setting up the cow for big demands of protein and energy. Protein content of feed should average at 9% in the ration at this stage. Make sure there’s enough mineral, vitamins and TM salt too.

Once calved, milk production kicks in and nutrient demand continues to increase until about two months after calving. That is when peak milk production occurs and there had better be plenty of protein and energy and minerals being provided in the feed. Protein content needed at peak milk production is 11% of the overall ration. A later calving date, in April, really works well with pasturing in the spring as maximum nutrient demand coincides with peak pasture quality in June. Early calving, in mid-winter means you need to supply higher quality dry feed to coincide with peak milk production and costs go up.

Going into winter in good condition and maintaining that condition through winter is a challenge this year. However, managing this trick should provide a lot less trouble at calving and healthier calves. It pays with easier calving and at weaning time with healthier calves.


Harry Brook is Flagstaff County's Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at: 780-384-4138.