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Cow health during wintering

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3 min read

Cow condition Split dry herds Cow allocation & feed utilisation Cow health Cow diets & transitioning

Winter preparation for cows is key to their health and productivity. Ensure they're in good condition, as fat acts as insulation. Group dry cows based on their condition and calving date, enabling tailored feeding and protection from dominant cows. Daily health checks are crucial, and it's important to create a winter care plan. Allocating enough feed is necessary to achieve body condition score targets, and efficient crop utilisation can be achieved through good grazing management. Keep an eye out for health issues and transition cows onto winter crops gradually to prevent illness.


Preparing your cows for winter is a crucial element. Cows that are well prepared will have a better experience during winter and be more productive during the season.

Cow condition

Cows in good body condition are better able to withstand cold as the fat layer beneath the skin acts as an insulating layer.

Split dry herds on BCS and time until calving

If you dry-off all at once then it is necessary to split the dry cows into herds based on condition and expected calving date. This allows for preferential feeding to get all cows to target BCS. Even if not enough feed is available to put on extra condition, creating herds is still a good idea, as it protects the younger cows from competition from the older more dominant cows. If supplement is going to be fed then feed it to the herd you want to gain the most condition or that needs to put it on fastest.

  • BCS your cows in mid winter. Redraft cows into the appropriate mobs to ensure they reach calving at target BCS.
  • Monitor cow health daily. Get together with your team and discuss common cow health problems prior to winter. Early detection of a cow health problem will greatly increase the cow’s chance of recovery.

Create a winter cow care plan with your team to ensure a successful winter for all.

Cow allocation and feed utilisation

It is important that cows are allocated enough feed to achieve their body condition score targets. Feed utilisation rates on crop based diets are often lower than grazed pasture diets and must be taken into account when determining appropriate allocations. To determine the appropriate feed allocation for your cows, use the .

Feed utilisation rate can be influenced by grazing management. Reduce trampling wastage by moving the fence once or twice a day rather than offering a few days feed at a time.

Crop is utilised more efficiently when long, narrow breaks, rather than wide breaks, are offered, as less of the crop is trampled. To ensure that all cows have access to the crop, there should be 0.7 metres of feed face per cow. If the paddock has a short feeding face, consider splitting the herd by condition score, and feeding both ends at the same time, rather than running the animals in one larger herd.

Downhill grazing may interrupt a cow’s natural grazing stance, which can decrease crop utilisation. When grazing from the top of the slope to the bottom, to reduce overland flow, you may need to increase crop or supplement allocation, to ensure cows are fed the required dry matter.

Cow health

When checking cows on crops it's important to look out for:

  • lameness, injury, loss of BCS, mastitis
  • health issues caused by consumption of the crop (red water, bloating, wobbly or down cows)
  • slipped or early calved cows
  • frozen troughs/pipes and empty troughs.

Some of the signs of health issues that can occur on crops are:


Health Issue Observation
Metabolic disorder or mineral deficiency Wobbly, down, lethargic, or skitterish cows – any behaviour that is not the normal, quiet cow eating or sitting down
Red water or SMCO poisoning Red urine, weakness, diarrhoea, jaundice, decreased appetite, and poor performance
Bloat No longer grazing, reluctant to move, rapid breathing, staggering.
Photosensitivity Reddening and peeling of white skin
Woody tongue/tooth issue Drooling and swelling of jaw and mouth area

 

See the Cow health section for more information.

Farmer tip

“I plan how I am going to transition cows onto crop – I either leave the first 6m of the paddock in pasture, or work out how I am going to on off graze them for the first week so they don’t get too much crop before their rumens adapt.”

Cow diets and transitioning

  • Cows must be transitioned onto winter crops to allow the gut bacteria time to adjust to a new feed source.
  • Transitioning onto brassicas (kale, swedes, turnips and rape) can be completed over a shorter time frame (7-10days) than fodder beet (14-21days).
  • Poorly managed transition will result in sick or dead cows.
  • See Fodderbeet transitioning.
Last updated: Sep 2023
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