With a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures below zero, many people often ask, what do cows eat in the winter? The simple answer is hay.
Most people are familiar the a cows diet in the summer, acres and acres of lush green grass. But what is hay? Hay is the staple forage in most cattle operations. Hay is forage (grass and alfalfa) that has been cut, dried, and made into bales. It would be similar to us eating dried fruit, for example. Putting up forage in this manner, a producer can store a nutritious feed source for the animals to eat during the cold winter months.
On our farm, feeding the cows in the winter starts way back in June. This is when we start getting the equipment ready to make hay. Before the haymaking begins, all the blades need to be changed on the disc-bine cutter. The oil needs to be changed the the tractor. Belts and chains need to be checked and adjusted on the baler.
Usually toward the first week of July, the alfalfa and grass is getting close, and we begin watching the weather forecast. Once we begin to cut the alfalfa and grass for hay we do not want any rain on it. Rain causes the cut forage to slowly rot, having the potential of destroying the nutritional value of the hay, once it is baled. As we hope and pray for no rain, the cut alfalfa lays in swaths in the field, drying. Once the swaths look and feel dry, we get out the hay rake and give the hay a turn. This helps it to dry evenly. Once the swaths are dry, we get the round baler out and bale up the dried alfalfa and grass into hay bales. This process is again repeated at the middle to end of August for our area.
Once the hay is baled, we haul the hay home and stack it in our bale yard. This is where the hay is stored until it is used to feed the cows in the winter. We do not want to leave the hay bales in the field too long, because just like object left in your lawn, the vegetative life under the bales cannot get any sunlight, and therefore dies.
When the bales are all at home and we are done haying, we test the bales to see their nutritive values. This is done by using a bale corer, a tool that you push in to the centre or core of the bale to get a small sample. We randomly test all the bales, separating them by field or the time they were cut. The sample is sent away to a lab where they test for nutrients, minerals, vitamins, digestive ability, and protein, for example. We receive a printout back that is similar to the labels we see on our food. From this information, we decide when we feed certain bales, how many bales need to be fed to the cows, if we have to add any supplements in the form of whole grains to their diet, and what other minerals and vitamins we have to add to make a balanced ration to help the cows maintain their weight and if bred, carry a healthy calf to term, through the winter.
In addition to hay all cows our our area need a salt supplement. We have large metal tubs that we set out all year that contains salt that is supplemented with selenium, trace minerals, Vitamins A, D and E. Just like vitamins help us maintain our health, this mix keeps our cattle healthy.
Happy, healthy cows is very important to producers. Putting up hay for use in the winter is one way we keep our cows fed and healthy, especially in the cold.