December is a critical time for cow-calf producers. How critical depends primarily on the weather. December can be a "tricky" month when it comes to weather. The environment during November is a good example and the variation in temperature, rainfall and as this is being prepared, warm weather is in the forecast for parts of the state. The weather will dictate the start of winter feeding. With a mild December, feeding can be delayed due to the availability of some grass. A few days of grazing can lower the winter feed bill.
The next four months, December through March, is the most expensive phase in the production of feeder calves. This due to the fact that 92% of cow-calf producers use hay as the winter feed source. Review your management practices of feeding hay and implement ways to reduce the waste that occurs. Wasted hay means reduced returns and profitability. A University of Missouri worker reported that 50% of the hay harvested is never consumed by the cattle.
Late Winter-Early Spring Calving Herds
These herds will be a couple of months away from being in the midst of calving requirements will increase the last third of the pregnancy. Cows should currently be in a "good" body condition score (BCS). There are lots of cows that are in a BCS of 3 and 4, which is not good for future reproduction.
* Mature cows should be in a BCS of 5 at calving. Results of research trials conducted across the nation have produced the same results. If cows are now in a BCS of 3, they will need to improve by 2 condition scores. Provide these cows extra feed now. The "rule of thumb" that can be used to determine the weight gain to increase body condition one score is 80-100 lb. For example, a cow in a BCS of 3 at the first of December to be in a BCS of 5 at calving the first of February 1, a period of 60 days, the cow would need to gain 160 to 200 lb. to achieve this, she would need to gain 2.66 to 3.33 lb. per day. It will be difficult to make this gain on the quality of feed available on most farms and as the weather gets cold. These "thin" cows might be candidates for marketing when the expense of improving condition is considered. A report by Extension Beef Specialists of Michigan State reported that one BCS score was worth $58.00 in reduced winter feed costs. It will be more now with the added cost of producing and harvesting hay.
* Bred replacement heifers should be in a body condition score (BCS) of 6 at calving. If not currently in a condition score of "6," these females need to be fed and managed to be in a BCS of 6 at calving and breeding for the replacement heifers. These females will require a higher quality, more expensive feed than cows.
* If available, dry and mature pregnant cows can utilize corn crop residue and low quality hay. Cows in a BCS of 3 or 4 would need to be supplemented. If there are plenty of shucks and leaves as well as some grain, cows in a BCS of 5-6 can do okay. Some grazing would probably be available around the edge of the fields. Frequently observe the cows' condition. Don't let them lose weight and condition. Check label on herbicide used last spring for precautions.
* The cattle in the herd that require the greatest level of management and care during this period are the weaned and replacement heifers that will be approaching first calving. These females should be separated from the mature cow herd and fed the better quality hay. These animals will be expensive to maintain and develop into replacements. They might be evaluated for marketing.
* The young, weaned replacement heifers should be on a management program to reach 650- 750 lb. British breeds and larger-framed heifers should weigh 700-750 lb. and cycling by March 1 and ready for breeding. What do they now weigh? Based on the current weight, producers should develop a feeding and management program to get the job done. Generally, these heifers will need to gain 1.5-1.75 lb. per day up to breeding the first of March. Again, consider the economics.
* If cows still have late calves on them, wean them. Get them off the cows so that they can gain condition before winter sets in. Delayed weaning will result in poor body condition and delayed rebreeding. These cows should be considered for marketing in that they calve out of season. "Out of season" calving cows create management problems and increase costs for the producer.
* Now would be a good time to review the weight, grade and price of the last calf crop as well as the marketing options. Would a genetically superior bull, a shorter calving period, cooperative marketing or improved forage production improve both performance and the value of the calf crop? Plan and start the development of a short calving season.
Late Fall-Early Winter Calving Herds
Generally, these cows should calve in good condition and have adequate forage to meet lactation requirements and rebreed. However, based on personal observations, lots of all calving cows are in a poor body condition. Some are already in a BCS as low as 3's and 4's. Cows should be in a BCS of "5" to successfully rebreed. If the weather gets colder, coupled with low quality feed, poor reproductive performance can be expected. These herds are in the midst of calving. Even under normal conditions, management needs for this group will be the greatest than at any time in their production cycle.
* Water needs increase greatly following calving. Mature cows will need about 25 to 40 gallons per day. Water availability can be a challenge during the winter but with rainfall experienced in recent times, it should be in good supply.
* Both the quality and amount of feed should be increased 20 to 30 percent following calving to ensure milk production, reproductive performance of the damns and calf performance and survival.
* The females that calve in a body condition of 4 or less at calving, will have trouble rebreeding. To improve BCS of the cows, consider weaning the calves and place them on a high quality feed. This will help the cows improve in condition and the calves to improve in gain.