Start Thinking About Winter Feeding Dairy Cows Now

winter feeding dairy cows

If you’re planning to keep your dairy herd on the farm through the winter, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how you will feed them now. By forward-planning the feeding schedule now, you will be able to maximise production during the winter months.

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Cows require a balance of energy sources to support milk production and keep them warm in winter. High D-value silages will provide the energy boost, but it’s important to also include a range of fibre and protein sources in their diet.


1. Delay Feeding

The winter season is a time for producers to think ahead about their dairy herd’s feeding regimes. If changes are made early enough – and with care – this can minimise disruption and maximise productivity.

A key challenge is ensuring cows are in good condition before the onset of extreme cold. This may require a slowing down of feeding or a delaying of feeding altogether.

During this period of the year, cows need extra fat reserves and weight gains to help them survive the cold. The use of a high energy supplement during this time can aid the weight gain process, but it is crucial to ensure that the supplement does not cause rumen acidosis.

The winter diets of dairy cows are often a total mixed ration (TMR) with conserved summer crops such as corn silage and alfalfa hay. Replacing some of this conserved forage with a mix of fresh forages could reduce the cost of winter feeding.

2. Increase Feeding Rates

The winter months present a challenge for dairy cows to maintain their core body temperature. They must monitor their body condition score, eat more feed, and increase metabolic rate to keep them warm.

Richard Norell, University of Idaho Professor and Dairy Specialist (Idaho Falls Research and Extension Center) says that “the most important thing for cattle to do during winter is to keep their bodies in good condition.” He explains that cattle grow a thick hair coat, add fat beneath the skin, and increase metabolic rate as they prepare for winter.

He also recommends a dry, clean coat and fresh water to minimize cold stress and maximize milk production. He says cattle with these attributes can handle temperatures as low as 18 degrees below the lower critical temperature (LCT) in calm, dry conditions.

During the winter, producers feed a variety of forages such as hay and silage. Rations are designed for specific production groups in the herd, and these rations are adjusted to account for periods of extreme cold.

3. Increase Water Intake

During winter, cattle have to work harder to maintain their core body temperature. This can cause cold stress in cattle if they are not provided with enough calories to help them stay warm and healthy.

Feeding more metabolizable energy in the form of carbohydrates and fatty acids is an important strategy to combat cold stress. This will allow cows to produce more heat and keep their body temperature above the critical 18oF range needed for health and survival.

One common method to increase water intake is by providing a free-choice rumen buffer such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Adding this additive to the feed increases water passage through the rumen and results in higher rates of milk production.

4. Increase Supplementation

A dairy cow needs a balance of carbohydrates, amino acids, fatty acids and minerals to support milk production. It also requires supplemental vitamins, including vitamin E which is a water-soluble nutrient that can help maintain the integrity of cells.

During winter, dairy cattle require a ration that is higher in energy and protein than during the summer months. This is due to the reduced grazing time that occurs as temperatures drop and a greater amount of weight loss from heat stress.

The nutrient requirements of cows vary depending on their age, body condition, available feed resources and the type of supplementation needed, says University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension beef specialist Mary Drewnoski.

Increasing winter feeding supplements to compensate for less forage intake is one way to meet cow energy requirements. This can be accomplished by feeding an additional 1 to 2 pounds of grain per head for every 10degC drop in temperature below -20degC. This will improve rumen fermentation and improve energy levels in the diet.