Colder temperatures change the nutritional needs of livestock; specifically, for the purposes of this article I am speaking of horses, cattle, goats and sheep. Some of the generalities also may apply to pigs and chickens but I am not grouping them into this article.

The importance of good hay

Winter brings colder temperatures, but that also usually means poorer pasture quality and the feeding of alternative forages like hay. Feeding hay sounds like a pretty standard task, but as most farmers can attest, finding good hay and storing it can be a challenge. Good hay can be expensive and sometimes hard to come by depending on the weather conditions during the seasons in which the grass is growing and the hay is being cut and bailed. Drought or over wet conditions can make growing or making hay difficult or impossible. The less hay that is made, the more expensive it becomes, and you will often find even poor-quality hay higher priced than expected. Stay away from moldy hay, hay that is too mature or has lots of weeds. Moldy hay can cause colic or sickness, especially in horses. Mature and weedy hay has less nutrients and can act as a filler with little to no nutritional value. Determining what is poor quality hay vs good hay can take a trained eye, but as a rule of thumb, live by this motto, “if you won’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it in theirs”. Once you have found a source of good hay, storing enough for the winter is the second biggest challenge. Good hay will become moldy if you store it improperly. Hay should be stored off the ground on a pallet and covered to keep it from being rained on. Moisture creates mold and mold can be toxic.

Colder temperatures mean animals must expend more calories to stay warm. Supplements like grains and concentrated feeds are helpful for calories and energy requirements, but they are what we call efficient nutrients for the animals to digest. Heat is produced by digesting inefficient nutrients like grass, hay or other forages. When temperatures get cold, make sure livestock have plenty of hay to eat to help them keep warm. For the most part, livestock can eat free choice hay. There are some exceptions to that rule depending on the type of hay you are feeding. Please ask your veterinarian or livestock extension agent if what you are feeding can be fed incrementally or free choice.

Older livestock animals may not have excess body fat to spare and their calorie intake needs may be much greater. During summer months when grass is more plentiful, it is easier to keep livestock in acceptable body condition since grass contains more sugars. However, in the winter, when grass goes dormant and turns brown, the sugar content is much lower. Hay also contains fewer sugars and this can make it more difficult for animals to take in sufficient calories to maintain their body condition. This means they will lose weight or we must provide them with more feed to consume. In these cases, supplements like grains and concentrated feeds like pellets or textured feed (aka sweet feed) help boost the calorie content and provide the extra calories needed to make up the difference. Older livestock animals often need more calories than their younger counterparts and can have an even harder time processing the rough forages like hay. These animals have special considerations and may need larger amounts of processes forages like alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, or chopped hay. Senior feeds and senior feeds or other “complete” feeds contain higher fiber percentages and are designed to be fed at a higher rate to provide that which they cannot get from eating hay.

Hydration needs

Water is probably the most single important nutrient for animals and people, but water intake is something that is often taken for granted especially during the winter months. Always make sure adequate water intake is being maintained. Frozen water troughs and colder temperatures will decrease water consumption and can lead to problems especially when their diets are consisting of dryer and rougher forages. Keep troughs open by breaking up the surface of ice formations or utilize trough heaters to keep the water at a more comfortable drinking temps. Plain and mineral salt blocks as well as electrolytes encourage animals to drink and provide good mineral nutrition. I always recommend species specific mineral supplementation so that each species’ needs are met. For example, sheep and goats have very different mineral needs and I do not rec a mineral supplement that is labeled for both.

Animals needs vitamins too

Vitamins like A, D and E are often deficient in hays and dried forages because they are such fragile compounds the drying process inactivates them. When animals can graze fresh grasses in the warmer times of the year, these nutrients are more readily available, but in the colder times when most grasses are dormant it can be a concern. Most supplemental concentrate feeds like pellets and textured feeds add vitamins back into their mixes to account for this. This may be another reason to add these types of feed to your winter nutrition plan, even if you do not do so in the warmer months. This is a good question to ask your veterinarian for your animals’ specific situation as this could vary wildly from animal to animal or farm to farm.

Overall, winter nutritional needs can be different and there are reasons to change things up in the winter and special concerns to contend with during the colder times of the year. This article is hopefully a good kick-starter to have you thinking about your animal’s or herd’s needs this time of year. Of course, my biggest recommendation is to plan for these concerns in advance. Now is a little late to be trying to locate hay, but its always a good time to be reassessing your animals’ needs and making sure you are doing things as best you can. Let us know if we can help in any way. Another good resource is the NC Cooperative Extension. There are several aspects of Cooperative Extension including specifically Livestock agents that are very knowledgeable regarding nutrition and where to find good information and local resources for things you may need, like hay. Locate their contact information under Cooperative Extension in your county government listings.

Dr. Amy P. Jordan