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Drought forces the hands of producers: Early weaning and nutrition

Rachel Gabel
for The Fence Post
Kelcey Swyers of Grassland Nutrition Consulting has been assisting her clients make drought-driven decisions with their herds.
Photo by Vanessa Houk

None of Kelcey Swyers’ Grassland Nutrition Consulting clients are calling her, wishing it weren’t such a wet year. A private beef nutritionist with a full slate of clients in Colorado and surrounding states, said early weaning calves due to drought conditions is quickly becoming a reality for many ranches.

As hot and dry conditions continue, Swyers said some producers are bringing pairs into dry lots to feed and others are early weaning, depending upon individual circumstances and resources. For those feeding pairs, she said creep feeding can be an option to alleviate competition for bunk space and provide an opportunity to treat calves to avoid health problems.

“Respiratory is just the worst,” she said. “Especially between the drought and then coming into dry pens, there’s a lot of dust pneumonia that then leads to bacterial infection and we start fighting those calves the whole time.

Chlortetracycline, she said, is one option in medicated feed if respiratory problems arise and is available only with a Veterinary Feed Directive. Coccidiosis is the other threat to calves, especially once they’re brought into pens in more of a confined environment, especially for producers with pens along rivers. As a protocol, she recommends a calf creep with Deccox (Decoquinate), a coccidiostate feed additive.

When considering weaning earlier than usual, Swyers said 400-pound calves is her goal to ensure the calves’ digestive system is mature enough to digest feedstuffs. Smaller calves are higher risk and can be difficult to break to the bunk even if they are then able to digest the feed. An inability to digest feed would lead, she said, to an immune deficiency and related health issues.

If dry lot feeding pairs is planned, Swyers warns that an inverted calcium phosphorus ratio is a challenge resulting in milk fever if the cows are quickly switched to a silage-based ration. Overlooking calcium supplementation is potentially a costly mistake.

COVERING THE BASES

“The No. 1 thing is protein, No. 2 is calories, No. 3 is mineral,” she said. “After you have those bases covered, the thing that most often gets overlooked is making sure there’s enough calcium in there to prevent milk fever. It happens a lot when we have a poorly balanced diet.”

Milk fever is particularly a concern if the cows are in excellent condition and milking heavily. Pastures managed well during dry conditions are high in nutrition, but the amount of grass is low.

“Most of these guys who are good managers and have been rotating their cows through their pastures have cows that are in better condition than normal, it’s just that we’re out of grass now and we need to pull them off,” she said.

However, the cows’ diet is reflected in their milk so she said a fast change from a range diet to a wet ration could easily result in calf diarrhea, so she recommends a transition initially that isn’t wildly different.

Bobbi Geisert, a Nebraska-based beef nutritionist, recommends that producers facing a shortage of forage in the form of grazable grass, harvested forage, or both form a management framework. Evaluating available resources and feasible options is necessary to better make decisions regarding cow numbers, pulling off grass early, using supplemental feed, and early weaning. She said mineral tubs are a readily available way to add nutrients to the diet but with options including grain-based, high protein, lower protein, fiber-based, hard or soft, or with an intake inhibitor producers must choose the correct type to add the correct tub to supply the necessary nutrients.

“Adding high protein supplements to a forage-based diet will increase fiber digestion and actually increase forage intake,” Geisert said. “Cows will look good, calves will gain good but if the goal is to reduce forage intake to make it through the summer those products may not meet the goal. In 2012, there were a lot of producers here that threw out protein tubs and their pastures looked really bad at the end of the year. Cows and calves were butter ball fat but the short and long-term effect on the range was evident. Grass protein and energy on years of drought tend to be higher than on years with ample rain fall. So finding a supplemental feed for grass needs to be balanced with the nutrients from the grass and designed to reduce forage intake without sacrificing performance.”

Geisert recommends working with a nutritionist to select the proper tub. When calculating cost, she recommends considering both protein and energy when determining price per pound, realizing that tubs and creeps tend to be higher priced than other options.

Supplementing forage while cows are still on pasture will decrease forage intake though transportation costs and range damage may make dry lot feeding the better option if feasible, she said.

“Major weather events bring creativity and thinking outside the box,” she said. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.


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