COLUMBIA, Mo. – Temperatures drop, sunshine dims and pastures stop growing. That’s when cow nutrition becomes critical, says Justin Sexten, University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist.

More hay was baled in 2013 than in the drought of 2012. But quantity doesn’t equal quality. Much of the hay may not contain enough nutrients.

Looking at hay-test reports, Sexten sees that lots of mediocre to bad hay was made this year. Spring rains at haying time delayed baling. Overmature hay has lower feed value.

There are options. Stockpiled pasture is first choice for quality winter feed, but that required action in August when cattle were removed from pastures and nitrogen fertilizer applied. Fall growth is left ungrazed until winter.

Another feed source is cornfield residue. Ear corn dropped at harvest and leaves and upper stalks provide nutrients for the herd. This may require added supplement for best usage.

“In Missouri, cornfields offer our most underused cattle feed,” Sexten says. “Grazing stover requires fences and water. But where land was taken out of pasture to plant corn, there may be fences and water available.”

Using a hot wire to allocate fresh feed every few days improves efficiency. However, Sexten says it’s important at this point to just get cattle into the cornfields. Cornstalks deteriorate quickly.

“Later, when producers learn the feed value of stover, they’ll improve grazing,” he says. “For now, try it.”

With increased use of herbicide-resistant corn, farmers learn the value of cattle picking up dropped corn. Next spring, that seed becomes a volunteer corn plant, a hard-to-kill weed.

The third feeding option is hay. This year, it may be bad hay.

It’s not too late to test hay to see how much supplement will be needed to produce the next calf crop.

“Test right before feeding time,” Sexten says. “Hay tested early can lose quality by feeding time, especially if stored uncovered outdoors.”

It’s nutrients in the feed that count, the nutritionist says. Most often, energy is lacking for cows. But the cow’s rumen bugs need protein to digest cellulose in the forage.

“Without testing, you’ll never know,” he says. “Payback comes in not overfeeding or underfeeding on energy or on protein.

“To me it is just a math equation. The deciding factor is price per unit of nutrient, not price of the feed.”

If corn gluten is $205 a ton and dried distillers grain is $225, you’d lose out going for the lower-priced gluten. The distillers grains provide needed energy plus protein at a lower nutrient cost.

“If you buy supplement in a tub, you’re paying twice what it would cost in a grain ration,” he adds.

Feeding plans for spring-calving herds look at cows’ needs—and the needs of unborn calves. For fall-calving herds, it’s too late to improve body condition before breeding season.

“We know nutrition for the unborn calf has a lifelong impact on replacement heifers and feedlot steers,” Sexten says. “Poor nutrition for pregnant cows reduces lifetime calf performance.”

For a cow, her first need is body maintenance. “Cloudy days with rain and temperatures near freezing are worse than dry days with temperatures below 20 F,” he says. “Cows spend energy to warm their bodies.”

Feed should be adding body condition (fat) ahead of calving season. The fat layer must be laid on before the cow starts lactating. After calving, the cow diverts feed into milk for her calf. She can’t gain condition.

Winter feeding determines rebreeding next spring. Back fat, shown in body condition, helps cows prepare for breeding.

Also, good nutrition before calving adds quality to colostrum, the first milk. A well-fed cow adds fat to colostrum, which jump-starts her newborn calf. Also, a well-fed cow adds stronger antibodies to pass on to her calf.

Antibodies ward off calf illness. A sick calf never fully catches up after a slow start.

Testing hay pays in just about all ways, Sexten says. But in a bad-hay year, it pays more. Knowing more about pre-calving nutrition for the calf makes hay tests worth more.

Without a hay test, a nutritionist can’t build a cost-effective ration for winter supplement.

“Test hay, and then sort it,” Sexten says. Feed highest-quality hay to high-value animals. In a spring-calving herd, that’s pregnant cows heading to calving time.