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Winter Management Practices for Healthier Beef Herds

28 Feb 2024

By Laura M. Brenner

Winter livestock management can seem like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse. Regional weather patterns, annual forage production and quality, and fluctuations of efficacy in breeding programs leave many producers frustrated and losing out on potential gains.

With an eye on the bottom line, there are a few ways producers can limit the negative impact of winter and even boost profit margins. Savvy producers know a few tricks to help their herds thrive through winter and enter spring calving season strong.

Evaluating Nutrition Needs

Most producers in the northern hemisphere rely on stored forages through the winter months. Even the few lucky enough to graze dormant pasture or crop fields may need to supplement with stored forages or other calories.

The quality of your forage from year to year changes depending on growth pattern, precipitation, and harvesting. Each year, growers should have their forages tested so they know what nutrients their cattle are eating and how, if necessary, to supplement their forage rations.


Pressed block and tub supplements are becoming increasingly popular. They are an easy-to-use, self-regulating, cost-effective way to supplement vitamins and minerals or protein year-round.

Choosing the proper supplemental nutrition for your cattle is one thing. But squeezing the most out of that investment means active management. If using blocks or tubs, consider placing them near water or loafing areas to improve consumption. And if your herd has a few bad actors, spreading out the tubs will limit social interactions and improve access.

Monitor Body Condition

Even after you’ve evaluated the nutritional value of your forage and complemented it as needed with supplemental feedstuff, animals may experience excess stress during harsh winters, which require more calories than mild winters. Visually monitor body condition - even through a few cell phone photos - and stave off losses before they have a long-term impact.

Careful body condition and nutrition monitoring are critical in a fall breeding operation. “Spring breeding cows are on green, growing grass. In the fall, if [cows] are on wheat, rye pasture, or dormant forage, nutrition takes a little more attention. There’s no spring growth backstop,” said White, Production Medicine Director and DMV at Kansas State University.

Effective Breeding Protocols

Assessing Heat Cycles

Cows may often express less estrus during cold, icy conditions and when several freeze-thaw cycles have disturbed the ground and made mounting neighbors difficult. Likewise, bulls must feel comfortable and steady to show sufficient aggression in mounting and frequency of mounting.

Various digital tools are available now to help farmers assess heat cycles before they present them visually. Ear tags, collars, and boluses inside the reticulum can monitor activity levels, temperature, and rumination.

“All monitoring devices will feed the data into software programs that the farmer can look at on their phone and see who is in heat today,” said Jenifer Cruickshank, Assistant Professor and Dairy Extension Specialist at Oregon State University.

Managing Semen Straw Temperature

If you’re used to conducting AI protocols, you already know semen is highly temperature-sensitive. Once the straws thaw, keeping them at a consistent 95-98 degrees before insertion is imperative. Take care to monitor the temperature of the straw, and be prepared ahead of time by having the cows and heifers caught and close to the warm room where your semen has thawed. Don’t forget to warm your insemination gun before loading the semen straw.

Active winter management is essential to squeeze every ounce of potential out of your cattle. Producers in the mid to southern United States see less of Mother Nature’s icy wrath, but there is still plenty of cold, wind, and snow to weaken the hardiest herd.

Getting ahead of the season with regular body condition monitoring and forage testing helps cows enter and exit the season on a high note. And considering shelter and footing comfort changes have a measurable impact on fall breeding programs that may linger into winter months.


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.