Cocklebur can be a pasture peril

If you’ve ever had to disentangle spiny cockleburs from a dog’s fur, you know just how problematic these prickly little pests can be. But inconvenience isn’t the worst of the problems. The cocklebur plant itself is poisonous to livestock.

A coarse, herbaceous annual weed, cockleburs start growing in the spring, mainly along fence­rows, ditches and low-lying areas of pastures. The cocklebur is found throughout the world, but here in the United States, Xanthium stru­marium is the species involved in livestock toxicity. Cocklebur poison­ings are also common in Australia and South Africa.

Toxicity to animals can occur at different times of the year, but newly emerged plants are the big­gest concern. The toxic principle, carboxyatractyloside, is present in the seeds and young seedlings, especially during the two-leaf stage of growth. The toxin concentration drops rapidly when the first true leaves appear.

Early spring is a problem time in pastures, but animals can be poisoned later in the year when mature seeds drop and start to grow. Hogs are particularly sus­ceptible to cocklebur poisoning, but the seedlings will also poison chickens, sheep, cattle and horses. Usually animals don’t eat the seeds for obvious reasons, but problems can also occur when cattle are fed whole cottonseed or hay contaminated with cocklebur. Seedlings are toxic even when dead and dry.

Signs of toxicity in livestock include de­pression, reluctance to move, a hunched pos­ture, nausea, vomiting, weakness, prostration and labored breathing; they will also show an abnormal posture with the back extremely arched due to muscle spasms. You may see leg paddling and convul­sions when lying down. Coma and death are possible. Other indi­cations of cocklebur toxicity are hypoglyce­mia, increased vascular permeability and gastro­intestinal tract irritation.

The minimum lethal dose of cocklebur seeds is about 0.3% of body weight; for rough figuring, that is 10-20% of cattle feed intake. Thirty years ago, the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation reported an incidence of cockle­bur toxicosis in cattle. The cattle were fed hay contaminated with mature cocklebur plants. Clinical signs ranged from death to hy­perexcitability, blindness, tense musculature, spastic gaits, lying down and convulsions. Research­ers reported 100-200 ppm of carboxyatractyloside in the rumen contents.

Good pasture management can greatly reduce the risk of cocklebur poisoning. Clipping pastures before seeds mature can help eliminate the spread of this weed. Many herbicides are labeled for cocklebur control, so a solid weed-control program is also effective. Rotation­al grazing will allow your pasture grass to thrive and discourage the growth of weeds and toxic plants. In addition, ensuring your animals have a quality feed and source of hay free of cocklebur contamina­tion will help you avoid potential problems.

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Good body condition critical for calving, rebreeding

After several months of marginal forage and harsher environmental conditions, spring-calving herds often have lower body condition scores (BCS) than fall-calving herds. Body condition scores describe the relative fatness of a cow herd using a nine-point scale. A cow with a BCS of 5 is average and represents a logical target. A BCS 1 cow is ex­tremely thin, while a BCS 9 cow is extremely fat and obese. Evaluating body condition in midsummer and at weaning are important to ensure good BCS at calving. Good body condition is most important during the last trimester, but there are few economical ways to increase it once winter has arrived.

If your cows fall on the thin side of the BCS scale, ask yourself why. Is it because of drought, overstock­ing or parasitism? Whatever the cause, correction and supplemen­tation are necessary to improve BCS. Weaning earlier will certainly help, especially if the situation has adversely affected calf weight gains. Both cows and calves would benefit. Protein supplementation along with a bit of fermentable carbohydrates, such as 2 pounds of MFA Breeder Cubes, will increase dry matter intake, and weight gains of 1 to 1.5 pounds per day are reasonable.

Weaning time is also a good time to evaluate BCS in conjunc­tion with other examinations and vaccinations. Cows with low BCS scores should be separated and fed until they reach at least a level 5 at calving. All cows need to gain approximately 100 pounds to allow for fetal and uterine growth. Beyond that, cows need to gain 80 pounds for each increase in BCS.

Cows with extra body condition are better able to face severe weather. When wet and cold conditions pre­vail, normal feeding regimens may not maintain body condition, and increased energy may be necessary. Cows with BCS 6 and above have some additional stores to withstand such episodes.

BCS should be evaluated at calving and before breeding. Pairs should be moved to where more nutrient-dense feeds can be fed. The goal is to ensure that lactating cows maintain body condition and are gaining weight during the breeding season.

Thin cows will make up time on the reproductive schedule by weaning their calves early, which removes the suckling inhibition and the lactation nutrition requirement. Research has shown that thin cows with BCS 3 or 4 will respond with high cycling and con­ception rates soon after weaning. Calves must be weaned at 6 to 8 weeks of age if thin mama cows are expected to rebreed and maintain a 12-month calving interval. One method is weaning 6-week-old to 8-week-old calves every two weeks, which meets the physiologic requirements for the cows returning to estrus and ensures calves are old enough to consume dry feed.

The most critical time for early-weaned calves is the first two weeks post weaning because they are learning to eat dry feed. Offering creep feed is helpful along with attentive management and small weaning groups. Shelter and access to feed and water are requirements.

From an economic perspective, feeding the calves and salvaging the breeding season is more profitable than feeding thin cows that are still nursing calves. Cows whose calves were weaned early will have lower nutritional requirements, they will breed better, and their calves will be heavier and more uniform than if left at the side of thin dams.

Evaluating body condition in fall-calving cows is critical at the be­ginning of summer and at weaning. Cows that are thin in June may not gain sufficiently if calves continue to nurse. In this situation, the choice would be to wean the calves, per­mitting forage to be used for weight gain rather than lactation.

If fall-calving cows go into the breeding season in thin condition, economic options are limited. Early weaning is more of a risk for calf health and weight gain than for cow performance. These cows should begin calving with BCS 6 or greater and fed to maintain postpar­tum condition. An early and short breeding season gives an early and short calving season, which reduces the likelihood of bad winter weath­er affecting the breeding season.

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Control pasture weeds using fertilizer impregnation

The world of weed control in forage systems has seen some growth in the past decades. Where growers in row-crop systems have been patiently awaiting new products to hit the marketplace, forage producers have been blessed with new options. Along with the ability to consistently remove broadleaf weeds from pasture and hay fields comes the ability to apply those herbicides in cost-effective ways, such as dry fertilizer im­pregnation (DFI).

With DFI, a pasture weed-control product is coated onto dry fertilizer being applied to forage fields. The real advantage of this system is the herbicide’s residual control, which suppress espe­cially small or yet unemerged weeds. By allowing fertility and weed control to be applied simulta­neously, DFI can be a tremendous cost and time savings during a busy time of year for many of MFA’s diversified growers.

There are many advantages to this approach, but DFI still should be treated like any other weed-control system in forage production. Ex­pectations should be based on when the product is applied and how much coverage is attained. The best control will still be achieved with good coverage in a broadcast spray scenario. Control of emerged weeds using DFI is expected to achieve 60-70% of that of a well-timed broadcast appli­cation. The good news is that residual control of unemerged weeds is excellent.

Here are a few considerations when using weed control with DFI:

Coverage is king. MFA recommends at least 250 pounds per acre of dry product applied with herbicide. The more product applied, the more even distribution of the weed control active ingredient placement. Double spreading is also recommended to ensure good, even coverage.

Adjust timing. Optimal time for controlling summer annual weeds in pasture is later in the season than most grass fertilizer applications. On pasture, May is an ideal time to get the residual control in products such as GrazonNext HL or the newly released DuraCor for summer annuals. For good control on hay fields, timing should be closer to early April. These later-season applications generally influence production of more leafy matter in the grass stand, resulting in higher-quality forage. Weed identification is still critical when planning for application timing. Contact your local MFA for assistance with both weed ID and optimal timing for application.

When looking at fertilizer applications later in the season, think about the growth curves of cool-season grasses such as fescue. Nitrogen uptake is winding down by May or June, so an application would be a great chance to catch up on some P and K based on needs identified in soil samples.

Advance the system. With land costs continuing to be high, maximizing the acres you currently operate remains critical to the economics of profitable forage production. Weed control is a good first step. Continue to move your forage growth forward by address­ing fertility based on soil sample data, leaving residual forages to allow for faster regrowth, and diversifying your grass species to take advantage of hot, dry summers.

MFA is excited to be offering dry fertilizer impregnation at many of our locations this year. We think it’s an efficient way to manage weeds on acres that may have not had such control in the past. If you’re interested in pasture weed control this season, contact me or your local MFA for the product and system that will work best for you.

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Get ahead of fly season with pest-control plans

Before pastures begin to green up is the time to start planning for parasite control and preparing cattle for turning out on grass. Don’t wait until pests begin appearing before you implement your plan of attack.

Flies, grubs, lice, ticks and worms lower animal performance, which can be costly. Controlling these pests can have a positive economic impact on your livestock operation. In MFA territory, fly control should be a key focus of your parasite man­agement plan.

Nationally, horn flies are the external pests that cause the greatest economic losses, costing producers some $1 billion annually. Horn flies are often present for more than half the year, and their feeding causes skin irritation, anemia, decreased feed intake, reduced weight gains and diminished milk production. Horn flies have also been implicated in the spread of summer mastitis. A common cost of horn flies on grow­ing cattle is 0.2 pounds average daily gain or 1.5 pounds per week. For nursing calves, fly control on cows will increase weaning weights by about 15 pounds.

You can get a head start on fly season by doing a little early “spring cleaning.” Eliminate potential breeding areas by removing leftover hay and other spilled feeds from winter feeding. Till the areas around bale feeders to help dry these spots. Clean facilities, particularly areas with manure, to eliminate potential breeding grounds, and ensure standing water is limited to what is necessary.

Once warmer weather arrives, there are several effective options for fly control. A multi-faceted approach that lasts throughout the season is always recommended for best results. Insecticide ear tags, available through MFA Animal Health, are a good, simple control option. Usually fly tags should be placed in late spring when fly counts reach a threshold such as 50 flies per side. Tag in mid-May or even June to get the best use out of the tag later in the grazing season. July and August tend to be particu­larly heavy horn fly months.

Oilers or dusters can be used during peak fly season. They need to be located at mineral sites or wa­ter tanks where a producer is sure every animal will walk underneath the oiler or duster for fly protection. Often this is a preferred method for cattle in a quick pasture rotation.

Cattle can also be sprayed with insecticides periodically while out on pasture. This needs to be repeat­ed frequently, and the protection is prone to loss due to rain. Always follow label directions.

Pour-on treatments can conve­niently be applied when animals are being run through handling equip­ment or in alleys. Again, always follow label requirements.

Feed-through products, such as Altosid IGR (insect growth regula­tor) in MFA Ricochet minerals, are particularly effective for flies that grow in manure. IGRs provide a tremendous advantage because they control the insects’ development so they don’t mature. Horn flies are particularly vulnerable to feed-through pesticides.

In addition to horn flies, stable flies and horse flies also irritate cattle and reduce animal perfor­mance. Stable flies generally will be found on the legs of cattle. They live in decomposing vegetation and tend to show up earlier in the year than horn flies. Good sanitation is effective in interrupting the stable fly’s life cycle.

Horse flies are tough but import­ant to control because they can transmit anaplasmosis. The females are the blood feeders, and they have a relative short time that they feed. Horse flies tend to be close to water because their larvae develop in semi-aquatic environments. Using a pyrethroid product and fly traps can be helpful.

When considering pest manage­ment, worm control is important, too. Endectocides treat both internal and external parasites, so a pour-on dewormer will also control flies. It is important to use the product appropriately and always follow label instructions. Treating internal parasites improves immunity, which leads to improved feed consump­tion and conversion. Deworming cows in the spring prior to turnout helps keep infestations down.

Check with the livestock special­ists at your MFA or AGChoice loca­tion to help plan a comprehensive control program before pests start bugging your herd this year.

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Calves need good shelter, nutrition this winter

As cold weather settles over the Midwest, keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who feels the chill—your calves do, too. You can protect yourself by wearing more layers and turning up the heat, but your calves can’t. It’s up to you to adapt their housing and feeding programs for winter conditions.

When temperatures drop, calves exposed to the cold are more sus­ceptible to respiratory tract infec­tions, and if they’re not fed ade­quately, they won’t grow as quickly because they’re using their energy to keep warm instead. Whether you keep calves in barns or hutches, fol­low these steps to help ensure their comfort and health.

• Check the feeding temperature of your milk and colostrum. Milk cools quickly when ex­posed to colder environmental temperatures and poured into cold bottles or buckets. If you feed milk replacer, you may need to increase your mixing temperature to ensure the milk is warm enough when it reaches the last calf.

• Monitor wash water tempera­ture. If you’re washing bottles or buckets in the sink, check your water temperature to make sure it is warmer than 120º. When the wash water cools, the fat and protein particles can come out of the solution and stick to the plas­tic, resulting in dirty equipment.

• Patch any holes in calf hutch­es and make sure they are not drafty. The job of the calf hutch is to keep the calf warm, dry and out of the elements. When intact, hutches do a great job at creating a draft-free environment for the calf. However, if there’s a hole in the hutch, it creates a pathway for airflow, and the calf has little room to get out of the draft. This results in a higher risk of disease and a lower rate of gain for that animal.

• Check the ventilation system. In calf barns, proper air exchange is critical for calf health. Make sure your fans are clean and function­ing properly. Check your posi­tive-pressure tubes for damage and repair or replace if necessary. Make sure curtains close proper­ly and there are no openings that could create a draft.

• Provide adequate bedding. If you haven’t already obtained straw for bedding, find some now. Straw keeps the calf dry and pro­vides insulation. Straw should be deep enough that the calf’s legs are covered when it lies down. Beds must be dry. You should be able to kneel on the pack without your pants getting wet. If your knees are wet, the calf is wet. When the calf’s coat is wet or dirty, the hair loses its insulat­ing value, and the calf loses more heat to the environment. For example, imagine the difference in your comfort between going outside in a dry coat or going outside in a wet coat.

• Ensure windbreaks are ade­quate. If you live in a part of the country where windbreaks are a necessity, you’ve likely already taken care of this. For those in other areas, think about how the wind travels through your farm and whether a windbreak would provide protection for your calves and heifers. Some­times the wind comes between buildings and over a calf or heifer pen. A row of strategical­ly placed big bales can have a dramatic effect on calf comfort, health and performance.

• Review the plan for keeping newborns warm and dry. If you use a calf warming box, make sure it’s clean and in working order. If you use heat lamps, test the bulbs to see they are working and inspect the cords for dam­age. Stock the area where calves are processed with calf jackets so employees can put them on as soon as the calf is dry. Review how employees will care for a calf born in the muck. It will need to be warmed up, washed and dried in a place where manure won’t be passed on to other calves coming through the system.

• Verify the feeding program. A calf’s maintenance requirement increases dramatically when the weather is cold. It uses energy to keep warm, leaving less energy for growth. To keep a calf growing and healthy when temperatures drop, it needs to consume more solids. There are several ways to achieve this: Feed more frequently, feed more volume each time or increase the solids content. Talk with your calf nutritionist to develop a strategy for getting more milk solids into your calves. Calf starters also provide nutrients necessary for growth, so be sure each calf has fresh, palatable and high-quality starter available at all times.

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