Ranchers with cattle on winter pastures have a few management strategies to help them cope with the large snowstorm that impacted much of Western South Dakota along with the major ice storm across the Northeastern part of the state.

Below, Sean Kelly, SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist outlines these strategies.

Wind Protection

“Protection from the wind for cattle grazing dormant winter pastures is critically important,” Kelly said, quoting his colleague, Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate.

Rusche said that by reducing wind speed from 20 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour or less, a cow is able to reduce their maintenance energy requirement by as much as 30 percent.

Although, most winter pastures have some sort of natural wind protection such as draws with thick trees or brush or a shelter belt, if a winter pasture lacks protection, Kelly explained that temporary windbreaks are an alternative.

Feeding Considerations

“Snowstorms and cold snaps also force producers to adjust their feeding strategies,” he explained.

However, Kelly reminded producers that sudden changes to a cow’s diet can cause digestive upset and problems.

“Any adjustments made to a cow’s diet during and after a winter storm need to be done gradually so cattle have time to adjust,” he said.

Kelly added that cattle grazing dormant winter pastures most likely will need their diet supplemented to ensure energy intake is adequate.

Feed Supplements

To avoid dramatic changes to a herds’ diet during a storm, cattle producers should avoid high-starch energy supplements such as corn.

“High-starch energy supplements are low in protein and cause a drop in rumen pH. This results in changes in the microbe population, which can lead to reduced forage digestibility and intake,” Kelly said. “Even though additional energy is available from corn, there may be no net increase in total energy available to the cow because she consumes and digests less forage.”

Kelly said providing additional protein supplement to cattle grazing winter range with plenty of hay – maybe of lower quality – is an effective strategy during a winter storm.

“After the storm, additional supplementation may be needed to maintain body condition. A fiber based protein supplement should be considered rather than a grain starch-based supplement,” Kelly said.

Examples of protein supplements are: DDGS (dried distillers grains), WDGS (wet distillers grains), alfalfa hay, or 20 percent to 30 percent range cake.

“Granted, cost-per-ton and availability must be taken into consideration,” Kelly said.

He reminded cattle producers that cattle also need access to water that is not frozen as decreased water intake will lead to decreased hay and forage intake – even if the hay and forage is readily available.


Protein is the first limiting nutrient for cattle on winter range.

“Energy is available in the fiber of lower quality forage or hay but cannot be utilized without extra protein to stimulate the microbes in a cow’s rumen to ferment and digest that fiber,” Kelly said.

He explained that extra protein which feeds the microbes in the cow’s rumen, causes the microbe population to grow, which increases the capacity for her rumen to ferment the fiber in low-quality hay or dormant pasture.

This in turn increases the amount and rate of digestion of low-quality forages.

Consequently, Kelly added, the cow is then getting more energy and more nutrients from each pound of low-quality forage consumed and is able to increase the amount eaten.


For cattle grazing dormant winter pastures the take-half-leave-half strategy still holds true to protect the range resource.

“Sufficient cover must be left to capture snow and protect the soil surface from exposure,” Kelly said.