High scoring feed strategies
Even with the open winter most of the High Plains is experiencing, livestock producers are likely starting – or already have been – plugging in the hay truck and doling out the goods to waiting cows.
Janna Block, area livestock Extension specialist for North Dakota State University, based out of Hettinger, N.D., shares some key principles of livestock nutrition producers can use in managing range cows, particularly in the winter months and going into the calving season.
Evaluating the nutritional status of your herd, determining nutrient value in feed sources, and matching the feed to the need are fundamentals of ensuring cow productivity. Body condition scoring is a common concept, but still the gold standard as a subjective way to measure nutritional status of a cow herd, says Block.
“We often think of body condition score in terms of fat cover, but it also takes into consideration lean muscle mass,” she says. A body condition score (BCS) can range from one to ten. Research-backed management strategies are to strive for a herd average BCS of five for mature cows at calving. A target BCS of six for first-calf heifers will maximize their chances to re-breed.
Preparing a cow nutritionally for the “heavy work” of producing and feeding a calf should begin months before, as it is hard to catch a thin cow up in time for the requirements of the winter months in a late winter/spring calving operation. Body condition scoring can be implemented in late summer for weaning considerations, at weaning, at the beginning of late gestation and at calving time.
When evaluating weaning, ranchers should consider pulling calves if the forage is low quantity or poor quality. Data shows that nutritional requirements for lactating cows are unlikely to be met on dormant range. Studies show that supplementation can help but only if the cows are not too thin already. “Usually once you remove that lactation requirement, cows will start to turn around within a week to a month,” says Block. “It’s important to look at in terms of when you take that calf off to when that cow is going to be entering late-gestation.”
The cow’s highest nutritional needs are late-gestation and lactation. “Sound body condition affects calf survival, calf vigor and subsequent reproductive performance,” says Block. “Body condition score at calving is one of the most important factors related to reproductive performance that following year, and records can be used to sort and feed cows more strategically.” She suggests that if a producer is already marking down information in a calving book, to add a column and record the cow BCS. “It’s really interesting to look at preg checking time and correlate those scores at calving to reproductive issues.”
An additional method of herd evaluation is what some livestock producers call “poopology,” or evaluating manure consistency. Cattle deficient in protein will have firm, stacked piles with distinct rings. Adequate protein will create flat folds of cow pie, and excess protein will result in looser stools with no structure.
“Something you can do is walk out on the feed ground and take a look at the different manure piles and see as a whole, what they’re looking like and then use that in conjunction with body condition score to evaluate nutritional status,” says Block.
Matching the nutrient needs to the feed requires knowing exactly what is in your feed, and this requires sample testing preferably by a certified laboratory. A limiting factor of nutrition can be the quantity of feed an animal can consume. There is only so much room in the rumen, and consumption of poor quality feed can result in them “starving to death with a full belly,” says Block. For this reason, it’s important to consider supplementing lower-quality feed with a more nutrient-dense supplement.
Supplements are categorized by protein (CP) and energy (TDN). Block says cattle producers are fortunate to have a wide variety of supplements available in North Dakota and on the high plains. There are many commercial supplements, such as lick tubs and mixed products, available, in addition to basic whole-product commodity feeds. Examples of protein supplements are canola meal, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, urea, and feather meal. Fat supplements can be barley, beet pulp, wheat, corn and silage. Feeds that provide for both requirements include dried distillers grains (DDGS), corn gluten feed and alfalfa.
Because of the physiology of the cow and her ability to recycle nitrogen from crude protein back to the rumen, research shows that protein supplements can be effective even if fed as little as once a week. Energy supplements, on the other hand, have to be fed daily if lacking.
However, everything will come down to cost eventually. The NDSU farm business management program and Extension have developed a feed cost calculator that evaluates nutrient components and costs of different supplements, and allows users to plug in variables and evaluate cost in dollars per pound of nutrient. The spreadsheet is available through the NDSU Extension website. Block also recommends the University of Nebraska “Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator.”
Austin Buzanowski is livestock production specialist with Purina AgPro Solutions in Glendive, Mont., and works with ranchers to help meet their cattle nutritional needs. He says this year he is seeing and hearing that a lot of cattle are coming in thin and people are supplementing more than a normal year. “Things got so hot this summer, no late moisture and the grass that didn’t burn up got ate by grasshoppers.” He says he’s seeing a lot of their high-fat, molasses-based baked tubs, at 38 percent protein and 12 percent fat, go out the door. “We’re trying to get supplementation to those cows early, not just protein, but high energy.” Buzanowski says he sees that it’s often easy for people to overdo the protein, and not pay enough attention to energy. “Catching up can be a bit of an uphill battle sometimes.”
Block says in her region, it has been an open winter in most areas, and producers are taking advantage of the opportunity to extend grazing and delay full winter feeding. The reports she is getting from county Extension agents in North Dakota are that many calves are still on the cows in the pasture.
“While this can work in some situations, it is important to keep an eye on cow condition,” she says. “We have heard concerns from some Extension agents around the state that many cows on pasture are thin, particularly cows that still have requirements for lactation.” She adds that it is unlikely dormant winter range will meet nutrient requirements for pregnant cows without supplementation. “Most spring-calving herds are entering late gestation and it will be increasingly difficult to put on condition as requirements continue to increase.”
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