Healthy as a horse? Only with proper nutrition

With so many feed, supplement and hay choices available, many equine owners may find themselves wondering exactly what their horse needs for good health and nutrition. When feeding horses, there are six basic nutrient categories that must be met: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water.

If using a quality complete feed, the first five nutrients are likely bal­anced for you. But it is critical not to forget about water—the most im­portant nutrient. A horse will need more pounds of water than pounds of feed. Typically a 1,000-pound horse will drink 10 to 12 gallons of water daily.

Horses will need more water when temperature, humidity or ac­tivity increases. Thus, it’s important to always provide unlimited access to clean, fresh water. Keeping water between 45 and 65 degrees encour­ages consumption.

Beyond water, nutritional require­ments for horses differ from indi­vidual to individual. While body mass, age, physiological condition, activity level and metabolic efficien­cy all factor in to an equine feeding program, there are some general considerations to keep in mind:

Maximize the amount of forage

Horses are, by nature, consumers of forage. Whether it’s fresh pasture or harvested hay, silage or haylage, for­ages are the ideal energy source for horses. Most mature horses should consume 1.5% to 2.5% of their body weight as dry matter forage. Monitor the amount of concentrate a horse eats. Owners frequently feed cereal grains when horses need more energy than forages can provide. To reduce the chance of colic and gastric upset, do not feed mature horses more than 0.25% to 0.5% of their body weight in cereal grains per feeding.

Meet mineral and vitamin needs

Horse supplements are great ways to ensure you are meeting nutrient requirements of your equine when they’re not receiving a complete feed. It is important to establish a balanced ration for horses that includes the right ratio of energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. Some producers will also provide free-choice salt. Horses may get enough vitamins in feedstuffs or microbial production in the gut. However, most horses respond to vitamin supplementation, particu­larly vitamin A, vitamin E, ribofla­vin and biotin.

If you’re feeding one of MFA’s Easykeeper products according to label, your horse will be receiving adequate minerals. MFA Horse Mineral is a good option to ensure unsupplemented horses have the minerals and vitamins they need. Owners and managers are strongly encouraged to work with your MFA key account manager or feed spe­cialist to ensure that horse nutrient needs are met.

Monitor body weight and body condition score

When deciding a horse’s nutritional needs, it is necessary to know its body weight and body condition score (BCS). Body weight can be determined by weighing on a scale or estimated using weight tapes or mathematical equations. Body condition scoring determines the amount of fat deposit under the horse’s skin in certain areas. For most horses, a BCS between 4 to 6 is ideal. Body weight and BCS should be tracked monthly.

Routinely care for your horse’s teeth

A horse’s teeth continually erupt and are simultaneously ground down as they chew feedstuffs, especially forages. Sharp points occur on the teeth, which can cut the inside of the mouth or cause gum irritation. Routine filing down or floating of teeth by a veterinarian or equine dentist will alleviate the problem and make an even grind­ing pattern for the horse’s chewing, which aids in digestion.

Change feeds gradually

When changing hay or grain types, replace only 20% to 25% of a horse’s current feed every other day. This will allow for a complete change over a week or more. A gradual change from one feed to another provides enough time for microbes in the gut to adapt.

Remember, some horses are easier to feed and require fewer nutrients. Other horses are very difficult to feed and require special attention. It is important to know how to feed your horse and to make sure it gets all the nutrients it needs.

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Colostrum intake has lifelong impact on calves

The worst thing that can happen to a newborn calf is to not get colostrum, that all-important first milk produced by the mother after birth. Colostrum is high in nutrients and antibodies, which provide calves with their initial protection against disease.

The quality and timing of getting the colostrum are also critical to calves. Years ago, Dr. Jim Quigley, who was a professor at the Universi­ty of Tennessee at the time, outlined the “5 Qs” of feeding colostrum effectively. I found these tips to be a great calf-raising resource:

1. Feed quality colostrum.

2. Use the proper quantity.

3. Provide it quickly.

4. Keep equipment squeaky clean.

5. Quantify passive transfer.

If you can guarantee that calves are fed adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum soon after birth, using clean equipment and making sure that appropriate passive transfer takes place, you can protect the young animals from many diseases, increase their immune systems, improve their growth and help ensure healthy and productive lives.

Colostrum contains high levels of immunoglobulins and other bioactive compounds that protect the young calf. To have colostrum with the appropriate immunoglob­ulins, the cow must be producing them. For your calves, follow the vaccination program recommended by the herd veterinarian. Generally, vaccinating cows six to nine weeks prior to calving and giving boosters three to six weeks prior to calving is one of the best ways to protect against common calf diseases.

We have seen increased colos­trum yield and density in cows that were fed MFA Ricochet Mineral for at least 60 days prior to calving. The effect is more pronounced in heifers and in the summer, but then one would expect lower colostrum production in heifers and in the summer.

Every calf should get colos­trum—bulls and heifers alike. Aim to feed 10% of calf bodyweight in colostrum within two hours of birth. Feed another 5% bodyweight 10 hours later. For a 90-pound calf, that typically looks like feeding 2 quarts of colostrum 30 minutes af­ter birth, 2 quarts an hour later, and 2 quarts 11-12 hours after birth.

Every calf should get colostrum, but not every cow will produce colostrum that should be used. Some cows are not good sources, such as Johne’s-positive cows, cows with mastitis, cows leaking milk, etc. Thus, it is important to have a supply of colostrum for calves whose dams are compromised. A colostrum replacer should provide at least 100 grams of immunoglo­bins; if under 100, the product is a supplement, not a replacer.

Even with the best colostrum ever, you need to feed enough— and more is better. I used to think that 2 quarts of good colostrum was more than enough. Dr. Roy Ax, professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin and University of Arizona, changed my mind. He tracked the survivability and longevity of cattle in which the only difference in management was whether the calves at birth got 2 quarts or 4 quarts of colostrum. The calves that received more colostrum had greater lifetime productivity.

Colostrum feeding and collection equipment must be adequately cleaned. This step is critically im­portant. The equipment should be rinsed with warm water to get rid of dirt and colostrum residues. Then, while wearing appropriate PPE, scrub all surfaces with chlorinated alkaline soap and hot water. Make sure that the water stays hot—really hot. Note that most household water heaters are factory set for “hot” water to be 120°F, but to clean and sanitize equipment, the water temperature should be 165°F. Use an acid-sanitizing solution to rinse all equipment, and let everything dry completely.

Cooling colostrum is also an important quality-control step. A milk jug full of colostrum put in the refrigerator takes a lot longer to cool than does the same amount of colostrum in a line pan placed in an ice bath. Fresh colostrum should be fed or prepped for storage within half an hour of harvest.

A calf’s colostrum intake follow­ing birth can impact them through­out their life, either positively or negatively. The right amount at the right time can benefit overall calf health and reduce risks for calfhood diseases, increase average daily gain and more. Talk with your MFA live­stock experts for more information on helping your calves get off to the right start.

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Eating too many acorns can make cattle sick

Acorns drop off oak trees in early fall, and cattle often like to eat them. But acorns, along with oak buds and very young leaves, can be poisonous when eaten in excess. Cattle and sheep are more susceptible than goats, but the toxic compounds in oak, called “gallotan­nins,” are tough on the kidneys in all ruminants. Immature green acorns are the main culprit as they contain the highest levels of toxins, but cattle could be affected if they eat too many acorns no matter what time of year.

Cattle with acorn poisoning will have lower dry matter intake and may be weak and listless. The oak gallotannins irritate the gastrointes­tinal tract, so cattle tend to “hunch up” and have off-color or bloody manure. Often there will be sores in their mouths, and they will become dehydrated. If producers don’t catch these signs early on, the cattle may experience rapid weight loss.

The best way to prevent losses from acorn poisoning is to preclude cattle access to them. Move the herd away from dropped acorns or con­sider fencing off larger areas where oak trees are growing.

Recognizing that this is not possi­ble in many situations, it’s import­ant to provide enough forage and supplements to keep cattle from wanting to eat acorns instead. Most of the time, acorn consumption is tied to a feed availability issue. Problems usually occur in pastures where there is not much grass left or not much hay fed. The amount of acorn toxins tolerated by an animal is influenced by the protein content of its diet. If the protein intake is high, the animal can con­sume more acorns without having poisoning symptoms. Making sure cattle stay hydrated will also help.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire antidote for acorn poisoning. If signs are noticed soon enough, cattle supplemented with protein and good-quality hay should recov­er. For more progressed symptoms, there are a few care options. Ac­cording to the Merck Vet Manual, a pelleted ration supplement contain­ing 10% to 15% calcium hydroxide plus access to more palatable feeds may be used as a preventive mea­sure. Calcium hydroxide, anti-bloat medication and purgatives (such as mineral oil, sodium sulfate or magnesium sulfate) may be effec­tive antidotes if administered early in the course of disease. Fluid and electrolyte replacements may also help keep kidneys operating and correct dehydration.

One of the most practical means of providing calcium hydroxide and other things that will help alleviate the problem is to offer MFA Perfor­mance First 20% Shield tub or MFA Performance First 16% tub. It is not effective to use a low-intake “all-in-one” tub, nor is it effective to use a cooked, low-moisture tub.

MFA does offer a supplement specifically formulated for this situ­ation, Acorn Special Cubes, which are meant to be fed at 2 pounds per head per day to cattle. These cubes also contain calcium hydrox­ide and modest energy and protein content. However, they are not floor-stocked at MFA locations and would have to be ordered at a 2-ton minimum. That usually makes the Performance First tubs an easier, more economical solution.

If you are going to provide cattle with calcium hydroxide, feed 0.2 to 0.25 pounds per head per day. Calcium hydroxide is hydrated lime or “builder’s lime.” It is dusty and noxious to handle. If you put calcium hydroxide into a grain mix to top dress, keep the moisture off it. Dry, oily things cattle like to eat work best as carriers, such as extruded soybeans or dry distillers’ grains. Calcium hydroxide that gets wet sets up like mortar, which is why it is used in the brick and block masonry building trades. It is much easier on all concerned to use pressed or poured tubs rather than to add calcium hydroxide directly to feed.

For acute cases of acorn poison­ing, ask your veterinarian about specific treatments. My experi­ence has been that cattle exposed to acorns for a long time do not respond well. Producers need to be aware of the disease and get more nutrition into cattle so that they don’t eat the acorns. Well-fed cattle are more resistant to the toxins, and they are less likely to eat acorns if they have enough forage and feed. Prevention is far more effective than treatment.

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Use custom approach to start cattle on feed

Cattle feeding is about risk management, providing nutrition to help the animals reach their genetic potential and caring for them in an environment they find welcoming. Animal performance starts with get­ting cattle on feed. If done correctly, quality will follow.

Producers should take a slow-and-steady approach to starting cattle on feed, being attentive to the needs of each pen. Receiving programs are not one-size-fits-most. There are specific goals for each type of cattle and certain criteria the producer needs to appreciate. Management of the diets can have long-term impacts on performance.

Considerations include:

  • Are they Health Track calves?
  • Are they bawling?
  • Were they sold through a sale barn?
  • Are they yearlings?
  • Are they local, or are they from the North, West, East or South?

The step-up program will be affected by all of the above.

When starting cattle on feed, ensure adequate amounts of clean, fresh water. The more water space, the better. If they don’t drink, they will not eat. Having a meter to mea­sure water intake is great. If calves are slow to eat, make sure they know where the water source is. It might be necessary to let the wa­terer run over to attract them to it. Make sure that the water is flowing properly and that it is good quality. If you’re unsure, have it tested at a lab for livestock suitability.

When cattle are dehydrated, there are distinct visual symptoms—both physical and behavioral—such as lethargy, tightening of the skin, weight loss, reduced feed intake, increased fecal viscosity and drying of mucous membranes. The best approach is to avoid dehydration with adequate water supplies.

Having delicious grass hay in the bunk is also good idea. Shipping and co-mingling stresses are hard on the animal and hard on the rumen. To feed the calf, we need to make sure to feed the rumen bugs. It is important to rebuild a proper rumen fiber mat and correct any disruptions caused by shipping stress. This will allow cattle to come up on feed in a healthy manner. It may not necessarily be quicker, depending on their risk factor, but it should be healthy and consistent.

The biggest thing that a manager can control is how the calves are fed every day. If you do not have a pen walker or rider, consider feeding twice a day. This gives you two opportunities daily to observe the cattle. It is important to frequent­ly check pens for morbid calves. Problems recognized early are easier to fix.

Not all cattle come up on feed the same way. A rule of thumb is to start at 1.5% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis. As an example, start with 5 pounds of pellets and 5 pounds hay per head per day for 6-weight calves, and work up to about 2.5%, using 5 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of pellets such as MFA Cattle Charge R with Shield.

Feed delivery needs to be appro­priate. It is undesirable to overfeed, and it is undesirable to underfeed. If you deliver too much feed, expect to see reduced palatability of the bunk ration and erosion of the feed-to-gain ratio. If you don’t provide enough feed, the cattle can be short on energy, protein, medication, vitamins and minerals, resulting in reduced performance. An advantage of feeding twice a day is that you can adjust the feeding rate within half a day.

Ensure feed is fresh, whether it is silage, high-moisture grain, dry feed or liquid feed. Moldy, dusty hay, off-colored burnt corn, corn silage that has heated and so forth do not entice an animal to the bunk. No one likes to scoop bunks or pitch top spoilage, but it’s cheaper to pay for that labor than reduced perfor­mance or dead calves.

It is very helpful to calculate the daily dry matter intake. If feed intake is less than expected, look at health issues, feed quality, feed availability, water availability and quality, cattle comfort and other factors.

Monitor and evaluate the cattle every day. When doing this, don’t be on your phone when you feed or walk pens. It is important to spend time in the pen looking at and listening to the cattle. A common acronym is DART, representing four areas to be thoroughly assessed and monitored: Depression, Appetite, Respiratory and Temperature.

Remember, how you start the cattle on feed will affect how they perform for the remainder of the feeding period. The bottom line is that dry matter intake is the most important driving force for healthy, high-performing cattle and the lowest cost of gain all the way to market.

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Stretch your forage resources

Weather and growing condi­tions impact the yield and quality of forages fed to cattle. Despite all management efforts, there is an ever-present risk that adverse events will lead to a shortage of forages.

In May and June, we had a really good idea that the drought in the Dakotas would result in reduced forage availability west of the river. Throughout the Corn Belt, expect­ed reductions in forage yield were spotty. In the Western U.S., the area under drought has continued to increase.

When forage shortages do occur, there are several alternatives that may help stretch supplies. In terms of alternatives for dairy cows, we’re looking at replacements for alfalfa and corn silage. For beef cows, we typically need alternatives to fescue pastures. Usually, it is easier to replace the forage equivalent of a beef cow diet rather than a dairy diet. The specifications are more modest, and it takes a lot less to fill the shortfall.

Consider feeding crop residues, such as corn stover, to beef cows. Corn stover refers to the plant material—including leaves, stalks and cobs—remaining in a field after it has been harvested. This is a pragmatic solution, and a common expectation is to budget an acre of corn stalks per month for each cow.

For dairy cows, however, feeding stover is not always the most viable option. Mid-gestation spring-calving cows typically have lower nutrition requirements, so they may be able to handle the lower forage quality of corn stalks. However, corn stover does not have adequate nutritional value for wet milk cows.

Treating and processing corn sto­ver to improve its digestibility and/ or protein content can increase its potential as feed, particularly with dairy cows, but there are some sig­nificant limitations. Corn stover is lower in bulk density, nutrient value and digestibility. It is also relatively resistant to handling and grind­ing and has a high transportation cost per pound of total digestible nutrients.

When growing corn for grain, standability is important. Producers tend to select hybrids with a high lignin content in the stalk, which results in tougher plants that stand up better. From a corn grower’s perspective, this is desired. Lodged stalks can’t easily be picked up by the combine. As corn plants ma­ture, the amount of lignin increases, while the digestible fiber—cellulose and hemicellulose—decreases.

The high lignin content of corn stover creates a challenge when fed to dairy cattle. The lignin acts as a barrier around the fiber, which hinders digestion by rumen bac­teria. To address these challenges, mechanical chopping and chemical treatment of stover is often used to disrupt the lignin barrier, increasing the accessibility of cellulose and hemicellulose for rumen bacteria and resulting in improved overall digestibility.

Purdue University research found that using calcium hydroxide-treated corn stover can be a partial replacement for forage fed to dairy cattle without negatively impacting production. Calcium hydroxide is a common food ingredient used in a variety of applications, from pickling and preserving fruits and vegetables to adding calcium to fruit juices and baby formulas. It is formed by mixing water with calci­um oxide derived from limestone.

At Purdue, researchers used corn stover that had been chopped, hydrated to 50% moisture, treated with 6.6% percent calcium hy­droxide, combined with distiller’s grains, and fed at low rates. The study proved that the treated stover could replace up to a quarter of the alfalfa or corn silage fed to milking Holsteins while maintaining perfor­mance. That was not true, however, for the untreated stover.

Feeding calcium hydroxide-treated corn stover also resulted in more efficient feed-to-milk conver­sion compared to feeding untreated stover, and consequently income over feed costs were greater when treated corn stover was included in the diet.

Another point worth consider­ing is the final calcium content of the treated stover when adding a calcium hydroxide treatment to feed. This might be helpful in some situations, such as if you’re needing to feed a restricted forage and high-grain diet to mature cattle. For dairy dry cows, however, it could result in excessive levels of calcium.

For beef or dairy producers look­ing to expand your forage supply, talk with your MFA agronomy or livestock consultants for more information on how to effectively use corn stover in your feeding program.

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