Beef herd strategies for drought

Written by Dr. Jim White, MFA nutritionist on .

Given the drastic reduction in forage yield in a drought, we are left with a few management options to carry cattle forward. The most obvious is to buy hay. I won’t cover that here, because if it is an option in your area, and you can afford it, you have a clearer path. Unfortunately due to limited supply, buying hay isn’t always an option. That leaves you with two principal means of addressing forage shortages. You can reduce forage requirements. You can improve forage utilization.

Reduce forage requirements

Cull animals. The conventional wisdom is on culling during a drought is if the cull is inevitable, then don’t put it off. Delaying the sale of at least part of the cattle inventory further reduces forage supply and potentially exposes you to greater market risk if the drought persists.

Wean calves early.
Many dairy replacements are taken off milk or milk replacer at a month of age. We can wean that early in the beef herd. Weaning at two weeks of age is too young, but weaning at 60 to 90 days is certainly a viable solution. Weaning greatly reduces the cow's energy requirement. Removing the calf helps her keep body condition, which means she is more likely to get bred. It keeps good cows out of the cull pen.

Fill the feed lot.
If you have to put weight on calves on pasture, hold the highest quality pasture for the calves. A better option is to put calves in a yard and feed them. A calf that weighs under 400 pounds has a tough time gaining two pounds per day on just forage. And, putting the calves in a lot will further stretch forage for the cows. Calves can progress quickly in the lot. Small calves have excellent feed conversions. We routinely see 3.8:1 to 4:1 feed to weight conversions for calves fed MFA Cattle Charge or Full Throttle.

Feed concentrate. When forage is critically low, feed concentrate to replace missing total digestible nutrients/protein, and provide adequate vitamin and mineral fortification. Figure on six to seven pounds of forage extender cubes/pellets (46783 or 46831) to replace 10 pounds of hay. A limit-fed concentrate program means cows are always happy to see you. See the nutritional information on forage extender cubes and pellets below.

Forage Extender 14% drought cube/pellets

14% all natural protein Supplement dry range grasses,grass hay and other roughage for
stock cattle
A high energy, high soluble fiber,
modest starch formula
Cattle can substitute drought cubes for forage, reducing the
demands on forage inventories. A pound of Drought Cubes replaces
the energy and protein of 1.5-2.0 lbs of hay
Cubed Regulated, flexible feeding
Contains cellulase and yucca Cellulase has been associated with increased fiber digestion, yucca
has been associated with improved nitrogen retention, both are associated with improving the feed value of the short in supply forage
Fortified with minerals and vitamins Helps meet nutrient requirements for economical cow maintenance


Building better beef replacement heifers

Written by Dr. Jim White and Mike John on .

Feed them right early and have them at breeding weight in time

The goal for selecting replacement heifers is simple—you want them to conceive, calve early in the calving season, provide adequate milk production and produce a calf every year. But much of what makes a good replacement heifer begins long before you begin to eye the keepers. Dam nutrition has distinct and long-term implications for replacement heifers.

Heifer development is influenced by how the cow carrying the heifer was fed prior to the heifer being born. While you are familiar with the challenges of calf vigor born to dams calving thin, you might not know about studies that show how appropriate protein supplementation to late-gestation cows has a lasting effect on heifers.

Work at the University of Nebraska looked at the effects of nutrition of dams on growth and reproductive performance of their heifer calves. One group of last-trimester cows got a pound of 40-percent protein supplement three times a week, the control group didn’t. In the study, cows were managed similarly during calving and breeding. The research lasted three years—long enough for  researchers to get a good look at the effects of feeding an appropriate protein supplement to late-gestation cows. Results showed that supplementing cows with protein during late gestation made for heavier heifers at weaning and breeding. Moreover, the heifers from protein-supplemented dams had higher pregnancy rates and earlier calving dates.

Aside from successful nutrition during gestation, pre-weaning management of heifer calves influences lifetime productivity. Heifers should be programmed to calve early during their first calving season. They will tend to calve early and wean heavier calves throughout their lifetime. Poorly developed heifers will fail to conceive or will calve late the first year and wean lighter calves.

Many of the heifers that calve late will be open after a limited breeding season.
With that in mind, there are several goals to work toward when developing heifers. Hopefully they will:  1) reach puberty by 12 to 14 months of age; 2) achieve high percentage for conceiving early in the breeding season; 3) be structurally large enough to minimize dystocia.
Due to the record-high value of feeder heifers and the high cost of developing replacement heifers, it makes sense to pay attention to genetic factors when selecting and breeding replacement heifers.

As stated above, selecting potential replacements from heifers born early in the calving season will make it easier to assure that they do the same when they calve.
Along those lines, the cost of using proven AI sires can be justified in the immediate added value of offspring from the insemination. And, it will pay in other ways in the future. One way this practice proves its future value is that heifers that conceive to AI have proven their ability to conceive early under a process that often has a lower conception rate than natural service. Odds are high that she will continue to do so in future years. Plus, bull calves from the AI services should be heavier and have predictable performance based on high accuracy EPDs. There are also well-documented advantages for multi-generational “stacking” of those predictable traits in future replacement heifers.

Feeding Replacement Heifers

Develop a ration geared toward adequate growth, not fattening. Given typical weaning ages, medium-frame heifers need to gain about 1.5 pounds per head daily from weaning to breeding. Large-framed continental breeds and crosses need to gain more than 1.5 pounds daily. Puberty is a function of both age and weight, so rate of gain can vary during the development period. Just make sure heifers reach the desired weight and appropriate body composition before breeding time.

To ensure that all heifers reach these weights before breeding, feed them separately from the cow herd. If possible, sort according to size. Smaller heifers require a more nutrient-dense diet and a higher rate of intake to attain target weights in the same timeframe as larger heifers. Remember that feeding replacement heifers similarly to terminal heifers will push the replacements heavier than they need to be—a costly proposition these days. Moreover, heifers that gain too fast have a tendency to have lower lifetime productivity, another costly proposition.

To determine the average daily gain needed for a group of heifers, subtract their average weight from the desired weight at breeding, and then divide by the number of days of feeding before the start of the breeding season.

Most heifers need to gain 1 to 1.5 pounds per day during the feeding period. Nutrient requirements for growing heifers to gain at these rates are listed in the nearby at right. These requirements are based on neutral conditions. Housing and other environmental conditions drastically influence the energy requirement of the animals.

Many combinations of feeds can be used for growing heifers—as long as intake and nutrient composition are appropriate. If you have to allow for error, it is better to overfeed protein than to overfeed energy. Heifers need to be grown rapidly but not fattened, so better-than-average forage should be offered. If heifers are on stockpiled pastures, they should be fed at least four to five pounds of Trendsetter Developer per head daily to attain the recommended weight gains;  two to four pounds per head per day is the lower end of the feeding rate. Often, the feeding program can be divided into one of four scenarios: 1) the operation has a forage base; 2) the operation also has grain storage; 3) the operation uses grain co-products; 4) the operation uses corn or sorghum silages to develop heifers.

Taking periodic measurements of animal weight and height are helpful in determining if heifers are growing at the proper rate. Some cycling, estrus activity should be observed in the heifers by six weeks prior to the breeding season. If you don’t see estrus activity six weeks or so prior, it’s likely that the heifers are smaller than they need to be. If that’s the case, you have roughly a month to get enough weight on them so they will be cycling at breeding. If the situation arises in which you need to put on weight on a deadline, feed Full Throttle or Cattle Charge at two percent of bodyweight per head per day along with free-choice forage.

Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated. Mike John is director of MFA’s Health Track program.

Cows carry herd profitablility

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

A herd of Cows in good flesh has more calves and weans heavier calves.

Variation in the body condition of beef cows has a number of practical implications for your herd. The BCS of cows at calving is associated with length of postpartum interval, subsequent milking performance and newborn calf health and vigor. Excessive condition is often overrated as a cause of difficultbirthing in older cows, although fat heifers are known to be prone to calving difficulty. The condition of cows at breeding affects their reproductive performance in terms of service for conception, calving interval and the percentage of open cows.

What producers can do now, a couple of months ahead of spring calving, is sort the cows according to condition. If you can see ribs, they are going to be less than a BCS 5. Feed that group to gain weight. Cows that are 5 to 7 BCS should be sorted to be fed for maintenance to a slight gain. Finally, I have not seen many cows over 7, other than some pets and ET cows. So we’ll leave that group out. (For help judging body condition, see Today’s Farmer Summer 2011, p34.)

Why is having cows in good condition important? Because it makes a difference when cows get bred. If a cow doesn’t get pregnant, she’s a cull or a real money sink. Research in Florida looked at several different measurements, and having a BCS greater than 5 drastically improved the chances of a cow surviving preg check.

In the nearby chart, you’ll see the percent of cows that reached heat within 80 days after calving was lower for cows with a body condition of less than 5 than for cows scoring more than 5. Low body condition can lead to low pregnancy rates consistent with the reports of the other four trials. When cows are thin, the calving interval increases. To compensate for increased production costs, calves from cows with extended calving intervals must have a heavier weaning weight than calves from cows with shorter intervals, or an increase in sale price must occur. Depending on either factor for profit is a questionable assumption. With thin cows, long breeding seasons are sometimes suggested. This is not the profitable answer. Even after five and six months of breeding, the cows scoring less than 5 at calving and during breeding did not conceive at an acceptable level. Until they have regained some body condition or have had their calf weaned, most thin cows will not rebreed regardless of how long they are exposed to bulls.

Getting weight back onto cows

The practical management implication is to supplement cows based on body condition score. Body condition significantly alters the requirement for supplemental energy and slightly alters the need for supplemental protein, but it is not a determining factor of mineral or vitamin supplementation.Mineral supplementation is always required in that plantbased feed sources are always multiple mineral deficient. In addition to body condition, cow nutrient requirements are influenced by weight, mature size, breed type, milk production level, travel and environmental stresses. All things being equal, younger cows are going to need more pounds of supplemental feed than older cows. If we feed to satisfy older cows’ needs, the younger cows will be shorted. Also older, bigger cows are better at pushing and shoving—that has a big impact on supplemental feed intake, especially where supplement is modest (say feeding two pounds of cubes a day on the ground). If possible, separating cows by age, size and BCS is helpful.

One of the most crucial factors influencing the calf’s survival and performance is the degree to which the calf absorbs enough immunoglobulins from the colostrum to protect it until the calf ’s own immune system becomes functional. How the dam is fed influences colostrum quantity and quality. Cows fed lower-energy diets have been shown to have reduced colostrum yield and reduced colostrum solids—in other words, a lower level of immunoglobulins. This is troublesome on both accounts, in that lower yield means less volume to feed, combined with lower concentration reduction in available immunoglobulins to the calf is inevitable. Feeding adequate vitamin E and selenium has been shown to improve colostrum quality, as has feeding beta glucans and mannan oligosaccharides. MFA Ricochet cow products have been fortified with the specific additives and nutrients to encourage higher colostrum quality.

Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.

New Feed delivers healthy calves

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

Focus on immune system increases calf survival and early growth

As I get more grey hair, I more frequently recall that, in days past, it was easier to be an animal nutritionist. Nutrition has evolved to include topics of physiology, microbiology, psychology and immunology. The explanations from immunology have been very helpful in explaining how health challenges will have a big effect on an animal’s growth and productivity.

Years ago, Dr. Tim Stahly convinced me. He demonstrated that young pigs kept away from disease exposure grew at a tremendous rate. He showed that when litters were split and some pigs were kept clean, and others had their immune systems turned on by disease exposure, the challenged pigs grew slower. Activating the immune system is metabolically expensive—upwards of 10 percent of nutrient intake can be used in an immune response. This pulls nutrients away from growth. Couple that with reduced feed intake for the challenged animal and performance suffers.

Over the years, we have used a number of health-immune system modifying compounds—feed additives such as direct-fed microbials, fermentation products, botanicals, yeast-cell wall components, beta-glucans, etc. Over the years, MFA has evaluated nutritional means of improving calf performance. And while we’ve made very successful feeds, we also realized that calf performance doesn’t start when they are weaned—it starts before the calf is born.
Work in the 1980s at Ohio State demonstrated that the vaccination status of the dam influenced the amount and type of immunoglobulins she would produce in colostrum. The quantity and quality of colostrum has a huge effect on calf survivability and performance. 

At birth, the calf is relativelyunprotected from disease organisms, and it takes awhile for the calf to develop its immune system. Until it does, calves are very dependent on the passive transfer of disease-fighting immunoglobulins from colostrum.

Fenceline weaning, less whining

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

Strong fence and close weaning proximity helps calves

One weaning practice that continues to gain favor with both researchers and producers is fenceline weaning. Fencing companies also seem to be proponents—the practice requires good fences. This weaning system breaks the cow/calf bond through a fence, rather than waiting to the point the cow begins to kick the calf or physically separating the calf and dam separated by large distances. In this system, the pairs are separated but can still see, hear and have nose-to-nose contact. The result is a calf that bellows less, walks the fence less and, in general, is less stressed than a calf that is abruptly weaned. Research shows that fenceline weaned calves continue a close-to-normal growth rate and weight gain.

While this practice is relatively simple, it does require some space and a sturdy separation fence. The fenceline weaning process is a follows:

•    Cows and calves are maintained together for several days in a pasture with ample feed resources.
•    Calves are held here with dams so they can acclimate, find feed and water before separation occurs.
•    To separate the pairs, the cows are moved to the other side of the fence.
•    Pairs are kept separate until the bawling stops, usually about 5 days.

The better type of fence to have between the cows and calves would be either high tensile electric wire or woven wire with a start-your-heart electric charger on it. One of the critical keys to making this practice work is that the calves stay in a familiar place—an environment with the same feeding routine: a creep feeder full of Cattle Charge, same grass, same water. They will still have visual contact with their dams so the only change they undergo is no longer being able to nurse. Minimizing stress and change for calves is a big benefit in post weaning health and performance.

What do calves want? Just like their moms, calves want to be bored. An exciting day for a calf is one where he meets lots of new friends, gets vaccinated, ear tagged, hauled, dehorned, castrated, wormed, implanted and weaned. So you can see that an exciting day is really a bad day in terms of stress. Calves would much rather fill their rumen and contentedly stare off into space, in a semi-catatonic state and contemplate the bovine.

If you try fenceline weaning, after the initial separation, expect the calves to walk the fence for about 18 hours. After the first day, they will spend more time eating than bawling. As mentioned earlier, a crucial component of this program is the fence, it needs to be strong and tight. It virtually needs to be “hog tight.” Using a tight five-wire fence with a middle electric wire has been demonstrated to be adequate, you can bet that a single piece of electric tape is not. When the calf is weaned, the animal will have a markedly increased water intake, so it is important to ensure that the calves have adequate water.

A substantial benefit to fenceline weaning is the health of the calves. The incidence of calves needing treatment is lower for fenceline weaned calves than it is for calves abruptly weaned by hauling them to a drylot. The reduction in morbidity is attributed to the reduction in calf stress.

Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.


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