How to reduce winter feeding stresses for both man and beast

Getting the basics right will go a long way towards reducing health and thrive problems after housing existing stock and new arrivals

Balancing the ration to meet the animal's requirement for energy and protein is essential to ensure maximum performance
Balancing the ration to meet the animal's requirement for energy and protein is essential to ensure maximum performance

Gerry Giggins

The winter housing and feeding period is a stressful time on both man and beast.

What happens the animals in the early days of arriving on the farm or being moved indoors does influence their subsequent health, performance and profitability.

Adhering to simple management practices at this point will reduce the likelihood of encountering problems both short and long term.

The changes the animals are encountering at this time of year, moving indoors from pasture, can challenge both immunity and the rumen, leaving animals more susceptible to viral diseases and digestive upsets.

The weaning process, mart experience, transport and mixing with new animals all have a significant stress effect on cattle. Swapping the field for a shed will present the animal with a sudden change in nutrition and surrounding environment.

Good practice dictates that upon arrival, animals should be kept in their purchased groups and allowed to rest for 24 hours before any veterinary treatments or further moving takes place. In the perfect world, this rest period should take place in a straw bedded shed and isolated from recently purchased and long term animals on the farm.

These animals will have a huge requirement for clean, fresh water to overcome dehydration.

Deep water troughs as opposed to shallow bowls should be positioned in any cattle arrival shed.

Get the latest news from the Farming Independent team 3 times a week.

A palatable forage source such as good quality bale silage or hay should be made available ad-lib.

This will allow for rumen fill and easy adoption without upsetting the digestive system. The practice of only opening silage pits at the time of animals being housed is an insult to its recipients.

A newly opened pit will often contain forage of variable dry matter, preservation and quality, particularly at the base of the wedge. This type of silage will limit intakes while posing a risk to rumen function.

Newly housed or purchased animals should always be offered the most digestible/ palatable forage available on farm.

Getting animals drinking, eating and settled will help to reduce a lot of health issues that can occur during the subsequent feeding period.

When introducing concentrate feed, every effort should be made to ensure that the plane of nutrition is increased in a safe manner.

Balancing the ration to meet the animal's requirement for energy and protein is essential to ensure maximum performance.

The level of energy and protein will vary depending on age, breed, sex and performance targets. Ruminants obtain energy from four main dietary sources; starch, fibre, sugar and fat/ oil. Fibre is the source of energy that ruminants are best design to digest.

However in a beef finishing circumstance, starch and sugar sources are necessary. As many beef finishers will testify, introducing energy rich feeds too quickly leads to scouring, reduced intakes and an increased possibility of lameness and other illnesses.

Beef finishing rations can be divided into three main categories; forage based rations, alternative feed rations and ad-lib feeding systems. In order to gain success in a forage based ration, the obvious prerequisite is high quality forage.


The main forages are grass, maize or wholecrop. Grass silage will be of variable dry matter, energy levels and quantities this year. Wholecrops are well below par, as a result of lower grain yields, while it has been a star year for maize crops in most parts of the country.

Introduction onto forage based rations should not pose any issues, provided as mentioned earlier simple guidelines around pit management are followed.

There is a lot of discussion around the use of rumen buffers at the introductory stage and throughout the feeding period. Where the forage component of a diet reaches 60%, I see little benefit in using a buffer.

Feeding an appropriate yeast will improve rumen conditions and enhance fibre digestion, thus improving performance.


There is a growing list of alternative feeds, including fodder beet, brewing and distilling by-products, liquid feeds, bakery and confectionery by-products and potatoes etc.

Brewing and distilling by-products will go a long way towards supplying all the protein requirements for beef finishing animal.

Overfeeding protein to finishing cattle is not only wasteful but it will also limit performance and lead to over fat carcasses.

Inclusion rates of all the above feeds can vary from 5kg/head/day and 25kg/head/day. Particularly where beet is being fed, introduction should be carried out gradually.

Balancing a beet based ration with long fibre may be difficult this year where both straw and digestible fibre sources (hulls, pulps etc) are scarce. Bakery and confectionery by-products are especially useful in bull finishing diets.

They are very rich in starch and sugars and as cautioned earlier, their gradual introduction into diets is necessary.

Ad-lib feeding

High cereal inclusion, ad-lib feeding will be more prevalent this year due to reduced forage availability on many farms.

The approach to formulating these diets, allow for a balance between high energy cereal grains, good digestible fibre sources and an appropriate protein inclusion.

The aforementioned scarcity of digestible fibre sources will make balancing these diets difficult this year.

From studying feed labels, I am seeing ingredients now being used as alternatives to pulps and hulls. These ingredients are of lower effective fibre content and lower energy, therefore reducing the effectiveness of the ration.

Regular feeding of small amounts during the first two weeks on this system, will reduce the likelihood of digestive upsets.

The use of yeast, rumen buffers or high pH grains will greatly enhance performance in this system.

The scarcity of Irish straw has been alleviated by the importation of straw from many sources including UK, France and Spain.

I have encountered the mysterious claims about how this imported straw is of superior nutritional value.

Having visited these countries on many occasions I can confidently dispel this myth as a sales pitch!

However, the convenience of acquiring baled straw that is pre chopped and has a lower moisture content cannot be overlooked.

Mineral/ vitamin supplementation requires careful consideration for all of the above ration systems.

Analysing forages, to determine mineral levels will identify whether any antagonists are present and help guide your supplier as to the most appropriate mineral.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

Indo Farming

For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App