Winter cow herd feeding: Does hay or corn supplement best?


CADIZ, Ohio -Though most cattlemen have calves on the ground or are expecting them any minute, it’s never too late to learn how to make breeding, calving and raising beef cows easier – from the cow’s perspective.
A big part of that for Ohio herds – those programmed to calve in the spring – is getting a cow and her growing calf through the winter.
Costs fluctuate. The average cost to overwinter a beef cow is $260 per head, according to Ohio State University Extension beef specialist Steve Loerch.
That cost can fluctuate depending on available hay and forage quality.
Loerch recommends feeding the poorest quality hay first, or in the early part of winter, and saving better-quality forages for January and February, when the growing calf and cow need more help.
To do that, a forage test is almost always necessary.
“If you don’t know [your forage test results] and feed what’s most convenient, you’ll be stuck with low quality hay when you need it most,” Loerch said.
Loerch tells farmers to think of this when they’re filling the barn with bales each summer: first cutting hay, with the lowest quality, typically goes in the back corner or on the bottom of the stack, and each subsequent crop goes on top.
So, when it’s time to feed hay in October or November, the best hay is fed since it’s easiest to get to.
Planning ahead saves this headache.
Supplements. On an experimental cow herd in Coshocton County, Loerch has tackled one age-old question: “Should I feed hay or corn in the wintertime?”
Corn has twice the calories – calories make heat and energy – than alfalfa hay, Loerch says.
In the 15 years he’s fed and cared for that herd, he’s devised a ration for cows that keeps them in good condition without them getting fat, and gives the calf optimal – not maximum – growth.
This ration. In November and December, feed 2 pounds of first-cutting hay, 2 pounds of protein and mineral supplement and 12 pounds of whole shelled corn, Loerch says.
In January through April, increase the corn to 14 pounds per head to make up for a cow’s advanced nutrient requirements in cold and wet weather.
Loerch learned the hard way about increasing a cow’s feed during cold weather. A few years back, in December and early January, he didn’t add more corn to the ration.
“It was cold as a brass banana that winter, and the cows were coming along, but we didn’t change the feed. It was so cold those cows lost 50 pounds in three weeks,” Loerch said.
Research has proven for every 10-degree drop in temperature, a cow’s feed requirements go up an additional 10 percent, Loerch said. When it’s raining or snowing, wet hides increase the energy requirement even more.
Pays off. The technique of limit-feeding corn – not giving free choice, but just enough to supplement nutrition – is worth its salt.
Assuming corn is $2 per bushel and hay is $80 per ton, limit-feeding corn costs half as much as feeding hay, Loerch’s figures say.
With hay prices almost double that now, supplementing with corn can cut feed costs even more.
Myths. Despite the mindset that feeding corn to expecting cows can create calving problems, research says otherwise.
In Loerch’s herd, the cows didn’t lose as much body condition over the winter when fed corn with hay, had calves that were 5-7 pounds heavier, but had no increase in calving difficulty.
After calving, conception was better in the cows that were cornfed vs. cows fed only hay.
Runs right through ’em. From Argentina to Alberta, Canada, cattlemen also fear feeding whole corn to their herds, Loerch says. That’s because they can see the corn in manure and fear their cattle aren’t getting anything from it.
But the losses aren’t so bad, Loerch says, noting dry or high-moisture corn has roughly 93 percent digestibility, while hay weighs in at around 60-70 percent digestibility.
“With hay, about one-third goes out the back end and we don’t think a thing of it because it’s not yellow,” Loerch said.
When deciding whether to feed shelled corn or cracked, Loerch recommends shelled, whole-kernel corn.
Cracked corn typically costs more because of extra processing, and bigger kernels are easier for cattle to pick up with their tongue, he says.
In addition, shelled corn has a longer starch release time, and will help cut back on problems with acidosis in the herd, Loerch said.
Options. Another option to supplemental feeding of corn is to feed soy hulls, an “excellent cow feed” that has the same energy value as corn, Loerch says.
Another option is grinding hay and forages before feeding, which lets cows eat more, or limit-feeding corn silage.
“You’ve got to push a pencil to find your cheapest source of calories,” Loerch said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at


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