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Grass-fed cattle in winter snow

About to experience my second  Chicago winter, this is a big question for me. What do grass fed cows eat in Winter near Chicago? Umm… grass? Except it’s covered in snow. From sometime in November to even some in April/May last year. So they develop a taste for ice-cream style grass?!

The answer depends on where the cattle live (geographically speaking) and their age/size during the winter months — a middle-schooler has different dietary needs than a college senior, for example — but in all seriousness, this question gets at the most critical issue in grass-fed beef production.

Often a cattle farmer’s livelihood depends on careful cost-management of stored feeds — anything the animal can’t harvest itself — because those calories directly impact the number of days it will ultimately take that animal to mature to harvest.

In our part of the world, this is especially tricky because producers must grow/store or secure alternatives to the most-available commodity feed sources — corn and soy.

The goal is to build a balanced diet that meets a cow’s need for protein and fiber but without grains, which are hard for cattle to digest.

Here are some of the grass-fed beef producer’s options:

Dry Hay: Mixed grass or alfalfa hay cut and baled in the summer months. In Iowa, producers may harvest up to four ‘cuttings’ of hay per summer (they cut, rake, and bale the hay, then let it re-grow to harvest again, as weather permits). These ‘crops’ aren’t usually equal in nutritional value, and the more uniform and substantial the bales, the higher the price, if it’s grown by others.

Haylage: This is hay that is cut and ‘put up’ or stored before it has dried as much as is optimal for dry baling. The residual moisture in the crop causes it to ferment and break down, making the feed more easily digestible overall (cattle get more nutrients from it per unit than if their bodies spent calories digesting the original stems). The trade-off is that you can’t ‘stack’ haylage like bales — it requires either a silo structure or storage in a long row of plastic sheeting called a ‘bag’, requiring specialized equipment. This incurs additional cost.

Cool-Season and Warm-Season Annuals: Immature oats, triticale, rye, sorghum-sudangrass and other plants that are harvested before a seed head or starch forms, while the plant’s energy is stored as sugar in its tender stems. These are usually harvested ‘wet’ as haylage or baleage (baled as ‘regular’ hay). Annual crops tend to yield more per acre and produce more uniform, tender and digestible forage, but they incur the cost and soil disruption of planting, as well as the same handling challenges and expense as haylage. The heavier the feed, the larger the equipment needed to haul it to animals, increasing its overall cost in fuel and labor.

Molasses: What?! Yes, that’s right. Molasses provides sugar for energy and entices the cattle to clean up their ration (who wouldn’t want their hay lightly sweetened?) and minimize waste. It also ‘feeds’ the flora of a beef cow’s rumen, increasing productivity. Finally, it has a low freezing point (as low as -45 degrees F) and will ‘run’ — if slowly — on all but the coldest days of the year. You might guess the trade-offs: managing its endlessly sticky viscous-ness, and its cost.

Raw Vinegar: Again, yes, I hear your disbelief. Many grass-fed producers regularly mix raw apple cider vinegar with their feed because it is proven to improve and regulate cattle digestion and act as a natural anthelmintic, keeping internal parasites in check. It’s cooling and soothing in the summer months, too, when added to a herd’s water supply.

Heavy plastic cattle mineral feeder
Cattle Salt or Mineral Feeder

Free-Choice Salt, Vitamins and Minerals: If you’ve ever watched your dog or cat seek out and chow down on green grass/leaves — or you yourself have had to sate an insistent taste for salt, fruits or vegetables — you will understand that cattle obey their bodies’ natural craving for vitamins and minerals beyond their daily diet. To keep the animals’ bodies balanced and running optimally, producers will offer a buffet of loose salts, vitamins and minerals, usually stored out on pasture in a pie-shaped feeder on which cattle can lift the rubber lid and lick up what they need.

All told, feeding grass-fed cattle in winter is rather exact, helping the farmer maintain a firm grip on the cost per pound of an animal’s gain.

Of course, there’s no way to know whether all these ingredients will pay off until you’re looking literally at ribeye on the grill, but, I will say, it’s that vision that can warm your gut (or fingers or toes or nose) when Winter is blowing at -20 degrees windchill, and you’re hopping off the tractor to open a gate or break up the ice on a water trough.

Great foods — especially proteins — take care and conscience, weather or no.

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