Surviving the winter. What are the challenges?

Add to these aspects such as the quality and quantity of available grazing during winter, veld fires, unusually long winters and the production expectations which producers have in respect of their cattle - and we have a recipe for a very challenging winter.

This article focuses on certain aspects of surviving the winter, with the emphasis on hurdles, the do's and don'ts of feed flow, feed requirements and certain practical guidelines to survive the winter in the best and most economical manner.


Farmers work with nature and have no control over it. It is therefore important to deal very carefully with predictions made by weather prophets - even if a wet winter is predicted, our planning must be of such a nature that we prepare for the worst. The winter of 2018 is proof thereof, when cattle farmers had to provide winter licks late into November in parts of the Free State and Northwest. This brings me to the next hurdle. Farmers are inclined to be reactive, normally with negative cost implications. Planning for winter survival must commence in the spring before the winter, when the winter requirements in terms of dry material intake have to be determined (a 100-cowunit requires approximately 500 tons of dry material per year).

Successful survival of the winter depends on proper feed flow planning. Feed flow planning goes hand in hand with winter survival. Studding, calving/lambing and weaning time can be synchronised with optimal environmental conditions to ensure good production and reproduction. Many farms do not have stud seasons, stocking rates are too high and the value of the veld is overestimated. In addition, there may be an additional factor in the form of passengers, which make no economic contribution to the business.


The simple definition of feed flow is the year-long supply of grazing and/or feeding of animals, in the most economic manner in order to maintain reproduction, without detriment to the resource. In short: how much feed does every class of animal require per month? The first prize is to produce the best quality feed on the farm. However, every producer's calculations look different and are influenced by factors such as the availability of resources, the production system being followed, the cost of financing, the exchange rate and international stock levels (since a number of resources are imported and in certain cases our products are exported).

It is also important to build a measure of flexibility into the feed flow planning, thereby enabling yourself to adjust to environmental variation. An example is when farmers sell their cattle and feed banks due to the fact that the sum works and that it is more profitable to buy cattle at a later stage again. Producers are advised to have a short- and medium-term plan in place, where the short-term plan involves the provision of feed on a month-to-month basis and the medium-term plan involves a year-plan.

Planning must take aspects such as feed quality and quantity, the costs relating to production, storage and logistics, wastage, buying of feed, production expectations (with reference to herd flow) and product income into account. It is not a fool-proof solution, but it will create the opportunity to make timely adjustments should the need arise. After all, we are busy managing risk. Since we are in the process of balancing the feed requirements of the animals with the production potential of the farm, we are sometimes inclined to create additional risks. A good example is when we go into new ventures, such as the planting of grazing without asking critical questions such as:

  • Are the current components of my business managed in an optimal manner (veld and grazing management in particular)?
  • Which additional management inputs are required?
  • How do new components mesh with my current cattle management practices?
  • And most importantly: does this expansion improve the profitability of my business or does it increase risks? In the end it goes about the production of kilograms of meat per hectare and to do it in the most cost effective manner possible. In this regard a good relationship with an animal scientist or grazing expert is invaluable.


The above question is not always easy to answer. We have often seen that the winter is just too long for the quantity of feed available and often the "pantry" is empty before we want it to be empty. We have also seen that feed (particularly baled roughage) is wasted due to an overproduction thereof. The cost implications in this regard are huge. Other aspects to be borne in mind include the extent of the herd, the stability of the herd and the retention of a large percentage of female animals with a view to building a herd. Maize, which is the biggest contributing factor to the feed bank on many farms, is a good example: will be it harvested, used as silage or will it be milled?

The answer to this question will depend on the individual needs and production systems, but the answer has a definite impact on the quantity of feed required. If you want to round off weaners, meal will be a good option, but during a drought, when volumes are low, silage may be a better option.

As far as the "how much"-question is concerned, it is important to take infrastructure into account as well. Do I have the necessary storage facilities and, if not, what are the costs involved in renting storage space? A lot of feed produced at a high cost, is wasted due to poor and inadequate storage practices (approximately 10% of roughage is lost due to weathering and wind losses before it even reaches the storage facility). It is also not desirable to expose equipment to the elements at the cost of feed in the shed.

The most important factor when it comes to how much feed needs to be supplied, is the fact that feed intake is the most important driver of animal production. We are all aware of the strong correlation between body condition and economically important aspects such as conception and re-conception figures, calving and weaning percentages and weaning mass. There are huge variances in intake, which can vary from 3% of body mass on ray grass hay to 1,4% of body mass on maize cobs. Other dimensions such as breed, frame size and adjustability also play a role. Using the NRC as guideline, it is evident that a dry cow of 400 kg requires approximately 3,15 kg of energy and approximately 0,375 kg of protein per day for maintenance purposes. Please note that the energy requirements of the same cow will increase by 25% before calving, when her protein requirements also double. Please remember that in many cases we farm with cows which are significantly heavier and the necessary adjustments therefore have to be made.

Economical maintenance of body condition is of the utmost importance in any winter survival programme. We know that winter grazing can simply not meet the maintenance requirements of the animal. The importance of a correct strategic supplementing programme (lick supplements) must be emphasised. Many a feed flow programme fails due to the fact that protein and/or energy supplements do not receive the necessary attention, with detrimental consequences for reproduction. Ensure that your lick programme will timeously address deficiencies. It can vary, depending on the year and specific production system.


The most important advice to cattle farmers is to plan proactively - we often wait until it is too late and then we have to apply crisis management. Do proper planning in respect of carrying capacity and market non-producers timeously. The golden rule is to care for fewer animals rather than placing the total herd at risk. Build in a buffer for years during which the winter is long and there is no rainfall. In addition to the 10% wind and weathering losses, wastage and dung and urine contamination could be as high as 15% - make provision. Try to synchronise critical production periods such as stud and calving periods with periods of optimal feed supply. Guard against impulsive decisions such as copying your neighbour. Every farm is unique as far as resources are concerned, whether biological, natural, of a human nature or financial.

Ask yourself the critical question:

 “Will it increase the profitability of my enterprise in a sustainable manner?” Do not neglect herd management aspects such as supplements, selection and herd health. Focus on veld and grazing management in particular - it is and remains the basis of economic survival during the winter.

Add to these aspects such as the quality and quantity of available grazing during winter, veld fires, unusually long winters and the production expectations which producers have in respect of their cattle - and we have a recipe for a very challenging winter.