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Dan Herold: Fetal programming considerations

Photo by Amanda Radke"Fetal programming has the potential to make a better end-product and add profitability to cow-calf producers," said Dan Herold, Ph.D., beef technical consultant for Hubbard Feeds.

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Fetal programming is the concept that a cow’s diet during the second trimester of pregnancy sends signals to the fetus, ultimately determining how efficiently the calf will be able to use nutrients.

While it is a hot topic in the beef industry, it’s still not widely understood. Nutritionists, animal health experts and researchers are working hard to unveil the potential producers have to capitalize on opportunities found through fetal programming.

Dan Herold, Ph.D., a beef technical consultant for Hubbard Feeds, spoke about fetal programming at the Forestburg Farmers Elevator and Hubbard Feeds Spring Feeder Meeting and Steak Fry at the Artesian Community Center in Artesian, SD on Feb. 28, 2011, with more than 80 local cattlemen in attendance.



“There is new research in the industry right now that’s getting a lot of buzz, and that’s fetal programming,” said Herold. “Fetal programming has the potential to make a better end-product and add profitability to cow-calf producers.”

Herold reviewed initial results from a set of spring-calving cows in the Sandhills of Nebraska and referenced in the Journal of Animal Science. The cows were studied to measure cow production and calf performance post-calving. The control group received no supplementation in the second trimester, while the treatment group received one pound of 42 percent protein supplementation per cow, per day. In the third trimester, both groups were brought together and offered the same diet.



The research showed that cows not receiving supplementation slipped in their body condition scores (BCS), but it wasn’t anything drastic, Herold explained. Birth weights in the calves didn’t differ much either. The real differences were seen in weaning weights. Without supplementation, the weaned calves averaged 465 lbs., and with supplementation, calves from the treatment group averaged 480 lbs. The percentage of live calves weaned also differed, with 93.6 percent live calves weaned in the control group, and 98.5 percent in the treatment group.

“When calculating it out, the net returns of the study showed an advantage for the supplemented cows with a gain of $25.38 per calf from birth to weaning,” said Herold. “When looking further, from birth to slaughter, the treatment group had a $45.76 advantage.”

Although the pros of fetal programming through increased supplementation aren’t necessarily obvious in the cowherd, Herold said the positive effects are quite evident in the performance of the calves throughout their lives.

“In humans, we already know that poor maternal nutrition and doing things like smoking and drinking during pregnancy are linked to low birth weights and increased incidence of adult diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension,” explained Herold. “In animals, the same concept holds true.”

For example, for meat animals, the number of muscle cells is determined through fetal growth. After birth, there is no increase in the number of fibers – only the size can be changed. Marbling is also determined before the calf is born.

“Marbling in beef is something we get paid for; it enhances the palatability, cutability, flavor and juiciness of beef products,” said Herold. “The number of adipocytes (fat cells) are determined in the later fetal stages of development. Timing nutrition impacts marbling.”

In a nutshell, fetal programming in beef cattle explores the idea for how different genes are signaled during fetal development to create the phenotype of the offspring.

“After the calf is born, so much of what it will do and how it will perform has already been impacted by how the cow is fed,” said Herold. “So, what’s the payoff for fetal programming, and how can you use it?”

Herold said if the cow doesn’t get enough protein in the second and third trimester, the calf won’t be able to grow to its potential after it is born. Realistically, this information is practical for all producers, no matter what their management preferences.

If selling calves based on weight, fetal programming can help increase muscle mass. If retaining ownership, it will help improve feedlot performance. If selling on the grid, it will enhance quality grade. If keeping replacement heifers, fetal programming is shown to improve reproductive performance.

These benefits are worth exploring as producers work to capture the opportunities for profitability in 2011 cattle markets. Although fetal programming isn’t an exact science, the benefits do carry weight and should be considered in the cow’s second and third trimesters.


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