Linking in-the-womb nutrition with lifelong profitability

Jan 21, 2011
by DTN

Bill Ankenman and his son Chris don’t call what they do “fetal programming,” but they’ve always been sticklers about taking good care of their Tarentaise cows. Now they’re finding out why their program works so well.

As seedstock producers, the Miami, OK, ranchers have always believed in putting an emphasis on their forages. With a base of fescue and bermudagrass, the goal is to run as much forage through cows as possible. If cows appear gaunt (a sign they’re not filling up on forage), the Ankenmans provide a protein supplement to increase dry matter intake.

“Our goal is to keep the cows in good condition yearround,” Chris says. “We manage them so they never drop below a Body Condition Score of 4.5, and we’ll maintain them up to about a 6. I think a cow has to be in good shape to allow for the full genetic expression of the calf. But it’s simple economics, too.”

What researchers have found is that the economic side of the businesses like the Ankenmans’ extends far longer than previously thought. From its embryonic beginnings, an unborn calf responds to the dietary intake of its mother. This is referred to as “fetal programming,” and new research suggests an undernourished calf fetus is “programmed” for a lifetime of susceptibility to health and performance problems.

More promising for cow/ calf balance sheets is that the opposite also appears to be true. A well-fed mother delivers a calf with a brighter future.

Beef producers have long known that getting a cow into shape toward the end of pregnancy is critical to breedback and colostrum quality. But the impact of bred cow nutrition appears to be much more far-reaching, influencing even downthe-road pocketbook factors like carcass quality.

“Since feed is the cow/calf producer’s biggest cost, we’ve often focused on what we can get by with,” says Amy Radunz, state beef cattle Extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We know we have to get that cow back into good body condition by the time she calves because it affects rebreeding. What we haven’t really considered is the impact cow nutrition has on the calf inside her.”

Energy sources compared

In her energy-emphasis research, Radunz compared hay, corn and dried distillers grains (DDGs) as energy sources for late-gestation cows.

While each ration was designed to meet basic needs, calves from cows fed corn and DDGs had heavier birthweights and went into the feedlot weighing more than calves from hay-fed cows.

On the rail, Radunz saw no difference in carcass yield, but marbling was greater for the progeny of the hay-fed and DDG-fed cows, while carcass weight was greater for corn-fed cows.

In addition, there’s evidence of far more complex interactions regarding placenta development, as well as maternal insulin and blood metabolic status that may impact fetus growth in late gestation.

Protein the key

Studies conducted by the University of Nebraska’s Rick Funston have focused on protein supplementation rather than energy source. The beef cattle reproductive physiologist found that cows grazing protein-deficient native range or corn residue delivered less promising offspring than supplemented cows.

Cows receiving extra protein produced heifers that ultimately had higher pregnancy rates and steers with a higher percentage of Choice grade and significantly heavier carcass weights.

All taken together, data from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota suggests cattlemen may want to rethink the conditioning pendulum of allowing cows to lose significant condition during gestation.

Ankenman says letting cows slip can be a costly mistake. “If cows are already in decent shape and we have to jump in with a supplement, it won’t take much to get them into good condition, and it won’t be too costly. If we wait too long, or hit a stretch of bad weather, it can get pretty expensive. Input costs are important, but it pays to keep cows in shape.”

The Ankenman cows weigh about 1,200 pounds in a body condition of 5 to 6. The fall- and spring-calving herds winter on grass along with fertilized bermuda hay that runs 11 to 12 percent protein and 58 to 62 percent TDN. Along with body condition considerations, supplementation is adjusted according to class of cattle and forage quality.

In addition to a solid customer demand for their Tarentaise and Tarentaise/ Red Angus females, the Ankenmans have been rewarded with excellent cow longevity, something they credit to good cow nutrition in addition to genetics. — DTN