Data the PowerCalf way

Data is power. And MFA’s PowerCalf is preparing a powerful tool for your cattle herd, said Mike John, director of Health Track operations for MFA Incorporated.

“We are in the final stages of technology agreements and tweaking the tools on our app,” he said. “When we put it in the market place, producers can download the app for a way to get herd records from the field into a digitized form that will help them analyze their production methods. You only have to enter the data once.”

MFA’s PowerCalf is a program to provide our beef-producer customers with data-based intelligence that will help them realize the full value of their herd’s genetic potential. The program collects and manages data in a standardized manner. It measures and benchmarks herd performance, and in turn, delivers this data to customers in a way they can use to improve their operations.

The PowerCalf app will be iOS- and Android-compatible. Producers can use the program to measure critical events for their herd. John said that breeding records, calving, death loss, feeding, pregnancy checks and processing information are the fundamentals of herd record-keeping. The app provides a menu for each of these areas.

“I use calving for an example,” said John. “Calving is a time when you want to get the information down accurately. And you already have the phone on your hip, so it’s a good time to collect data in what I call the one-and-done method. Input data while you’re looking at the calf and its dam in the pasture, and the app will send it to our secure servers. You’ll have it later at your desktop, too.”

At calving, the app provides the producer prompts to record the date, cow ID, cow age, pasture location, calf ID and sex. One of the goals of the app is to make the data uniform. “For your analysis and to help benchmark your herd against industry standards, you need standardized data,” said John. “That’s why we have the drop-down menus. It prevents you from losing data through a typo or misspelling.”

There are fields for general notes as well as industry-standard calf descriptors such as calving ease and calving vigor. “The goal,” said John, “is to give producers a way to capitalize on that phone that they already have in their pocket or on their hip. The app gives you a way to record what just happened today. It won’t happen again tomorrow, and it’s the kind of information that can help you improve your herd. This is a way for you to enter the data quickly in one place and have it standardized and available from then on. You don’t have to sit down in front of a computer later and enter it. And it’s sent to secured, backed-up servers.”

John noted that producers don’t have to share their data with anyone. However, data can be used in a randomized pool to provide feedback on industry standards.

“When it goes up to the secure server. We’ll get feedback to you immediately on what you entered. For example, when the report is generated, it comes back immediately to your phone in a form, and you can verify that the data is correct. And yes, we’ll keep your individual data confidential.”

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Let your grass grow

Spring of 2016 came early this year, giving a jump-start to summer annual weeds. The summer of 2015 was ripe with rain, weeds and the inability to get them sprayed. Many of those weeds matured enough to set seed, significantly increasing the seed bank. That is creating weed problems now. Pasture and hay meadow weeds are significant profit-stealing problems that affect grazing patterns and decrease tons of usable forage per acre. Anything that decreases tons of desirable forages also reduces pounds of beef per acre and negatively changes the bottom line of your operation.

The most efficient plans for weed control target the early life cycle of the target species. Efficiency has become somewhat of a “buzzword” as we contemplate a blossoming population and increased need for the beef people will want to eat. Efficiently increasing the pounds of beef per acre on your operation contributes to feeding our population.

For biennials (thistles, spotted knapweed, etc.) and winter annuals (henbit, chickweed, etc.) I recommend spraying in late fall through very early spring. Just choose a day with temperatures over 45 degrees and unfrozen ground. Two pints of GrazonNext HL per acre plus Astute at one quart per 100 gallons of solution will control emerged weeds—and the residual activity will help to control weeds not yet germinated.

Most summer annuals can be controlled with a herbicide application at the very beginning of their life cycle, even before some have emerged. For example, if you had a severe problem with ragweed (our biggest thief of moisture and nutrients in the summer) in a particular pasture last year, it has likely returned this year. Spraying a product with residual at the first sign of ragweed, or even slightly before, will control that weed population for most of the growing season. For this application to be most effective, grass should be grazed short so that herbicide can reach the ground. It will quickly regrow if moisture and plant food are available.

Another important management practice that will add to efficiency is to move cattle to new pasture when grass is grazed down to about 3 inches. This rotation strategy applies during the growing season. Obviously, during times when grass isn’t growing (winter or severe drought) you are better served to hold them in one paddock and feed hay until grass growth resumes.

There are three reasons to move cattle at that 3-inch mark. First is that regrowth is much quicker when starting from the 3-inch mark. Imagine that each blade of grass is a solar panel. Continuously grazed grass tends to be about three-quarters of an inch tall and about quarter-inch wide. That provides a surface area of less than 0.2 square inches of “solar panel”. Three-inch tall grass tends to have a width closer to a half inch. The taller grass provides a surface area of “solar panel” closer to 1.5 square inches (more than seven times larger). If moisture and fertility are the same, you can grow grass from 3 inches to about 12 inches faster than you can grow grass from three-quarters of an inch to 3 inches.

The second reason to move cattle at 3-inch grass is it allows the root system to recover carbohydrates more effectively. The result is a healthier stand of grass. You’ll benefit from pulling cattle at the 3-inch height in one other way—fewer ongoing weed problems, which will lengthen the interval between spraying.

Efficiency and a proactive management of grass does require some time and resources. Investment in your pasture/hay forages will pay off. In the words of a wise man that I admire: you can’t just save your way to a profit; you have to grow your way there.

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A non-antibiotic path toward livestock performace

By now you are familiar with the Veterinary Feed Directive that will be implemented by the FDA this year. The directive will require new thinking about when and how to treat livestock with antibiotics. Alternative paths to animal health are growing in popularity. Pharmaceutical companies are removing growth promotion and feed efficiency claims from bovine drug labels, and regulatory oversight for antibiotic rescue treatments is increasing.

Under the new rules, producers will be required to obtain a Veterinary Feed Directive to administer controlled antibiotics. Only veterinarians can issue VFDs and they must do it within the context of what USDA is calling the veterinarian-client-patient relationship. In other words, the vet will be required to engage with the livestock producer, know and visit the operation and provide for follow-up care. Furthermore, the vet will be required to document VFDs, which will make antibiotic use traceable up and down the sales chain.

With an eye on export markets and knowing that changes were coming in domestic antibiotic rules, last year MFA introduced Shield Technology to the market. Feeds with Shield Technology have been well-received by the cooperative’s customer base, and MFA’s feed team is at work to document the success of individual producers as they try Shield Technology on their farms.

Shield Technology employs a research-tuned blend of essential oils and other additives to enhance animal performance and health.

The goal for feeds formulated with MFA’s Shield Technology is multifaceted. The unique ingredients are designed improve animal health, but also to extend shelf life and bunk freshness, which improves feed intake.

As it is ingested, feed with Shield Technology improves the function of livestock immune system through improved gut health, eases the effects of heat stress and inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, which, in turn, benefits populations of beneficial bacteria.

There is a vast amount of research on essential oils used for feed in multiple livestock species. Scientists believe that such compounds benefit livestock through inhibition of non-beneficial microbes in the gut by disrupting the organisms’ cell membranes. Aside from directly antagonistic effects on non-beneficial bacteria, the increase of beneficial bacteria creates competitive exclusion—the “good” bugs out-crowd the “bad.”

In fact, these plant-based compounds are called “essential” oils because of the role they play in plant health, providing certain antioxidant, antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. They are essential to a plant’s natural defense system.

Research has also shown that certain blends of essential oils function as antioxidants. Antioxidants work to counteract free radicals which can lead to multiple health concerns. You’ve probably read about the benefits of antioxidants in human health.

MFA’s Shield Technology focuses on the right blend of essential oils and a patented process that makes them more effective once in the digestive track. The focus is on efficient absorption and the ability of the animal to properly metabolize the ingredient. The formulations also focus on proper dosage. These factors put Shield Technology on the positive side of research results.

MFA Shield Technology also employs probiotic additives that act as immune modulators. Immune modulators activate white blood cells in the immune system, which then more effectively fend off parasites, fungus and non-beneficial bacteria.

Finally, the addition of specific carbohydrates brings additional benefit to gut health. The digestive tract is not only the largest group of organs; it is its own cosmos of billions of microorganisms. That’s especially the case in ruminants, which depend on fermentation for digestion.

The right balance of beneficial bacteria improves feed efficiency and overall performance of livestock. And specific carbohydrates such as Mannan Oligosaccharides have been shown to bind with bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, helping reduce toxins in the gut.

Shield Technology is being implemented across the MFA feed portfolio. For more information, contact your local MFA feed representative.

"Phytogenic" feeds are a growing market.

Whether it is driven domestically by new regulatory oversight or by export customer preference, the demand for non-antibiotic-derived growth promotion is a catalyst for new formulations of livestock feed. The general classification for naturally derived beneficial ingredients is “phytogenics." 

According to studies from Market Research Technology, MFA’s Shield technology is leading the way in a growing market. Phytogenics are poised to take off.

One driver is strong demand for meat production. Global demand for meat is more than 310 million tons (2014 data) with year-over-year growth at 1.8 percent. In aggregate, meat consumption has expanded more than fourfold over the past five decades.

The second driver is regulatory. Changes here in the US and existing rules in the EU and other markets have called for a reduction in antibiotics use in livestock production. In fact, the EU has banned antibiotic use in feed since 2006 and our FDA’s new regulations will arrive at the end of this year. These regions are promoting the use of natural additives, particularly plant extracts.

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Artificial insemination is precision breeding

In recent months, we’ve seen the effect of high beef prices from 2014-15. Beef producers across the country answered those high prices with herd expansion.

If you put the average annual cow slaughter against the expected herd expansion numbers, the total surpasses herd growth looks like 3 million new breeding females per year for the next few years. That’s a large number of heifers coming to pastures. Of course, depending on their goals, beef producers will have multiple agendas in mind when making genetic selections for coming calf crops.

Producers who look for long-term herd expansion might place an emphasis on maternal traits to derive good replacement heifers. They might also seek calving-ease sires on first-calf heifers.

To maximize inputs, producers might seek growth and feed efficiency traits for cattle sold as calves and yearlings. And some producers will focus on carcass merit traits for livestock retained through the feeding phase, particularly in niche markets.

While everyone is aiming for improving the herd, the goals I’ve just mentioned will require multiple sources of genetics. The average commercial producer probably won’t have a group of bulls diverse enough to deliver these maternal traits to the next few calf crops for replacement heifers. To get that kind of genetic diversity from herd bulls takes considerable planning, management and adds expense to the operation.

Herd bulls have kept pace with rising cattle prices. In fact the average Angus bull commanded a price of $5,500 at public auction last spring. When you do all the math and average things out, that makes for about $140 per pregnancy.

All these factors create a compelling case for the exploration of an artificial insemination program for commercial cows. In looking at the cost factor alone, the average cost of pregnancy with an AI program ranges from $80 to $100. Spending that money certainly grabs your attention, an advantage to the outlay is the ability to select genetics strategically for a specific goal.

With AI, the producer can hone in on any single goal, or a combination of the above goals. AI sires can be selected with a high degree of accuracy for any of the above traits to ensure that you can make significant genetic advancements in one generation.

One of the reasons producers have been reluctant to participate in this management practice is that they are unfamiliar with the procedure and possibly have had the perception that it is too difficult and time-consuming for their operation. Advancements in synchronization protocols have streamlined the process. MFA has recently partnered with ABS to help producers take advantage of this valuable tool. Aside from improvements from the targeted genetics, AI can improve calving logistics. What I’ve seen from producers using AI for commercial herds is a tighter calving pattern, with more calves born in the first two weeks of the season. And that means cows have a better chance to cycle back sooner for re-breeding.

Herd bulls still have an important place in the Midwest cowherd, but take a look at what AI might do for your operation as you continue to improve genetics.

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Toxic fescue sticks around

Fescue toxicosis continues its quiet theft among cattle herds in the Midwest. The condition results from cattle fescue that hosts an endophyte fungus that produces toxic alkaloids (ergovaline) in the plant. You’ve seen the damage in action: vasoconstriction that causes hoof problems and labored breathing, reduced daily gain, trouble with breeding and the tell-tale heat stress that leads cattle to stand in ponds even on cool days.

More than 90 percent of fescue pastures tested in the Midwest contain the endophyte fungus. The irony is that, aside from the harmful effects the fungus has on cattle, it’s also part of the reason that fescue is so persistent—it actually helps the plant.

But at what cost? A study in 1993 estimated fescue toxicity cost the U.S. beef herd $609 million dollars. If you account for inflation, the cost is more than $1 billion today. And, while you can account for general inflation, it is harder to figure the actual cost to producers during times of high beef values. The peak prices from a couple of years ago may have faded, but producers don’t want to give up daily gain in today’s market either.

By whatever measure, fescue toxicity is a drain on the industry.

There are a few approaches to consider in mitigating problems from fescue toxicosis. One, says MFA director of nutrition, Dr. Jim White, is to move cattle to non-endophyte-infected pasture.

“If you have the resources, cattle can be moved from toxic fescue to warm-season perennial grass pastures in the late spring or early summer,” he said. “Dilution with legumes in the fescue pasture is also an option, but you need to use something that will compete with fescue: red or white clover or lespedeza. The clovers are easily established into existing sods. They’re compatible with tall fescue and able to increase animal gains. Research shows that adding clover to infected tall fescue stands can increase steer gains substantially. Adding clover to a toxic tall fescue pasture has been shown to deliver an extra 0.15 pounds of average daily gain to grazing steers. Additionally, interseeding clovers has consistently been shown to dilute the ergot alkaloids and enhance performance.”

If economically feasible, supplementing cattle on heavily endophyte-infected pastures is an option. If you see symptoms of fescue toxicosis, you may already be paying a price that would have afforded those supplements.

Producers should do something about the toxin load the animals are eating before seeing the symptoms. “In general terms, you can figure you lose 0.1 pounds of average daily gain for each 10 percent infection that you have on the pasture,” said White. “If I had to use infected fescue, my first preference would be to feed 0.5 percent to 1 percent bodyweight of a complete feed. In the spring and fall, during rapid grass growth, this provides dilution, better protein efficiency, additive effects and trace mineral-vitamin supplementation,” he said.

Finally, you can change the pasture itself. Renovating infected pasture and replacing it with “novel” endophyte strains retains the value of fescue for its persistence and soil-holding capabilities without supporting the toxic endophyte fungus. Instead, these fescues contain a “beneficial” endophyte that does not produce toxic alkaloids. In the past decade, seed breeders have brought several lines of novel-endophyte fescue to market. MFA offers BarOptima Plus E34 and MaxQ.

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