Balancing feed costs and cow health

Dec 11, 2009
by WLJ

Balancing feed costs and cow health

Winter months can be challenging for beef producers from a nutritional standpoint. With less available forage and colder temperatures, proper winter feeding becomes more important than ever. It is critical to maintain adequate body condition scores within a herd during the winter months. Significant loss of body condition can have many negative effects on individual cow performance for the rest of the year. Additionally, feed costs generally account for anywhere from 60 percent to 70 percent of annual cow costs.

Winter feeding programs can play a huge role in the ultimate success of the operation, affecting not only input cost per head, but also reproduction, disease resistance, and overall herd productivity. Feeding appropriate amounts of hay and necessary protein supplementation to your herd during the winter months can not only save the ranch money by not overfeeding, it can also increase the productivity of the herd by optimizing nutrients and making the most of the genetic potential within the herd.

A relevant point to be considered by beef producers, brought up by Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist, is that this year brought a lot of grass growth in the spring and summer of the year, much of which is still standing. Many beef producers who are not in snow covered areas are still running on this mature grass and holding off before feeding hay. "Don’t be fooled by just quantity of available forage. If it is left over from the summer grazing season, it is most likely very low in nutritional quality. When running on very mature, high fiber, standing forage, I generally recommend some form of protein supplementation. The key in that type of situation is to keep the rumen environment digesting fiber and that is why supplementing protein, verses a starch, such as corn, is much more effective. Starch makes competition in the rumen for the bacteria that is necessary to break down and make use of the fiber," stated Whittier.

The timing of calving season is important to consider. It becomes important to feed more aggressively during the second trimester of pregnancy to ensure that the cow has enough body condition to carry her through until calving. Cows that have a low body condition score heading into the third trimester traditionally have a greater chance of having a wide array of calving difficulties.

The primary nutritional factor influencing calf crop percentage on an operation is adequate intake of energy, which is more commonly referred to as total digestible nutrient, or TDN. Having adequate levels of TDN present in winter feeding programs becomes critical for several reasons. First, it helps to initiate puberty in heifers and to maintain proper body condition before and during calving. It also helps by keeping the postpartum interval short to ensure that cows start coming back into heat in a timely manner. Other nutrients which are also important are protein, calcium, and phosphorus, which make year-round mineral supplementation important.

Another choice producers have for reducing winter costs is to consider early weaning. Most calves in America are weaned at approximately seven months of age during either late October or early November. However, gains of both cows and calves are often reduced by late August, especially during years of poor forage quality. Weaning calves around the first of August at approximately 140 days of age has proved successful at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, Oregon. Body condition scores (BCS), which are measured on a scale of 1 to 9, with one being emaciated and 9 being overly fat and obese, have increased by one full BCS after this practice was implemented in the year 2000. Cows that are weaned traditionally have higher winter feed costs because of the additional feed it takes to get them to a comparable BCS by calving.

Research from Texas A&M University has shown that cows with a BCS of 4 or less at calving and breeding will not breed back quickly enough to maintain a 365-day breeding interval. Other findings indicated that cows that had a BCS of 5 or higher had improved calf health, survivability, and greater weaning weights. The conclusion to this is "you can’t save a nickel to lose a dollar" when it comes to feeding your cowherd during the winter. However, if cows are over fed to the point of obesity, their fertility is impacted negatively. Additionally, heifers that are fed excessively can have lowered milking ability due to large amounts of fat in the udder. This situation is uncommon and usually only a problem for show heifers latter in life.

Another important fact to utilize when making management decisions is that nutritional requirements can vary greatly depending on the size (body weight) of the cow, her milk production level, physical environment, and stage of production. For every 100 pounds of increase in body weight, increase net energy requirements by about 6 percent for beef cattle. Milk production can also have a huge impact on the energy needs of a cow, increasing net energy requirements by up to 25 percent, but this occurs primarily during the first three months of lactation and is less of a concern during the winter. Physical environment is very important, especially concerning temperature and wind chill factors. It is a good idea to feed your best quality hay during the worst part of your winter. To pinpoint differences in hay quality, forage testing is a good idea.

"As all input costs of ranching have risen, the No. 1 factor concerned with cutting winter feeding costs is for producers to actually know the nutritive value of what they’re feeding. Forage testing is money well spent to gain knowledge about your harvested feeds. Typically, harvested feeds can be low in phosphorus and possibly protein. One way to increase protein in a forage ration can be simply to feed a grass hay and supplement it with alfalfa," said Doug Hixon, head of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Wyoming.

Forage testing can be done through many Extension services or state ag departments. There are also a number of private companies that specialize in forage testing. — Heidi Suttee, WLJ Correspondent