Feeding cows the proper nutrition
February 13, 2015
Every cattleman worth his salt knows cows need the best possible nutrition before calving. But what does she need once the calf drops?
University of Wyoming Associate Professor and Wyoming State Beef Extension Specialist Steve Paisley says keep her energy level high.
"A cow's energy requirements increase about 30 percent before she calves, then they increase another 30 percent once she has the calf," Paisley says. "The extent of her energy needs will vary, depending on weather conditions at calving. The colder the weather the more energy she needs."
Because a cow with a newborn calf at her side is not only providing 100 percent of the calf's nutrition, she's also recovering from the pregnancy, preparing for breeding season and maintaining body condition. Sound nutrition helps ensure her successful transition through each of those phases.
"It helps if the cow has received sufficient nutrition prior to calving," Paisley says. "In order to maintain or gain weight after having a calf, the cow requires adequate energy and protein," he said.
"If a producer is relying on forage resources at calving time, it's especially important to be mindful of forage quality," Paisley says. "In fall, forage quality continues to decline as we move into winter. If a cow is going to generate the necessary calories from grazed forage, she'll need good quality forage."
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Fourth generation beef producer Neal Sorenson at Spotted Horse, Wyoming, calves heifers in February and mature cows in March. Since the cows are on some 10,000 to 12,000 acres of grass year round, Sorenson provides a year-round mineral supplement and dried distillers mixed with low quality hay as a nutritional boost for his cattle.
"If it worked for us to calve in May and June, when forage quality peaks at the same time the cows' nutritional needs do, we probably wouldn't have to use the supplement," Sorenson says. "Since that cycle doesn't fit our purebred Angus operation, we rely on the supplements."
Sorenson began using a year-round mineral supplement after finding several years ago that his calves were suffering from a copper shortage brought on by the presence of molybdenum in his soil. It's a mineral that ties up available copper in cattle. Because he's aware that his forage quality doesn't provide adequate energy for cows with a calf at their side, Sorenson doesn't hesitate to use the supplement.
"The DDGs and hay is cheaper than cake," Sorenson says. "That doesn't mean we never use cake, but typically we go with the DDGs and hay mix."
The degree of energy in the cow's feed resource is an important part of proper nutrition after calving. At about 60 days after calving, a cow will be at the peak of milk production. A 1,200-pound cow will require about 16.5 to 17 pounds of total digestible nutrients (TDN) per day to meet those energy requirements, meaning the feed source should be 60 percent to 65 percent TDN, Paisley said.
Prairie hay, a common feed source for lactating cows, is generally 55 percent TDN, he added Some Timothy hay may be somewhat higher, depending on the stage of growth it's in at the time it's grazed.
"Brome hay or meadow hay is probably closer to 60 percent energy, but that's the first limiting nutrient that needs to be available to the cow," Paisley says. "The second most important nutrient is protein. When a cow is producing so much milk for that calf, she needs between 10.5 percent and 11 percent protein every day. Cows on alfalfa probably meet that requirement pretty easily. Most prairie hay is between 9 percent and 10 percent protein. It's important to make sure the hay isn't protein deficient."
Cows also require adequate phosphorus and calcium prior to breeding season. Paisley recommends a mineral package with 12 percent phosphorus as a feed supplement.
Cows grazing stockpiled forage after calving are likely to be at risk for lacking both energy and protein. A range cube supplement is generally adequate to fill the gap.
Cows and calves are especially vulnerable to nutritional deficiency in seasons when weather has been extreme or harsh prior to calving. Hot, dry summers or extremely cold and stormy winters can push a cow's energy requirements beyond normal levels, putting her at a disadvantage for maintaining or improving body condition after calving.
"If the cow is losing weight after calving, the biggest impact is likely to be on her milk production," Paisley says. "That in turn can lead to reduced weaning weight. But the biggest impact might not be seen until breeding season because the cow may not be able to bounce back and cycle in time for breeding. If the producer wasn't aware of the nutrition deficiency before breeding season, it will be too late to correct it and avoid the consequences."
Research suggests that management of cow nutrition prior to calving has the most significant impact on calf health and growth potential. However, overall milk production does impact weaning weight.
"Proactively addressing nutrition needs before and after calving is the best approach," Paisley says. "Testing feed sources is the most accurate measure of feed quality. If you're feeding cattle every day, seeing them every day, you may not notice subtle changes in body condition until it's rather advanced."
Visual observations of cow health should include checking for a healthy hair coat and absence of any sign of the cow's ribs. A relatively smooth top line and good flesh cover over hipbones are all signs of a healthy, adequately fed cow.
"Keeping cow body condition between 4.5 and 5 on a 9-point scale is a good rule of thumb," Paisley says. "You don't want to see sharp front shoulders and you want fat over the hooks and pins. When a cow starts losing body condition, you're going to see two or three ribs showing and her topline will start looking rough. An overall smooth appearance is what you're aiming for.
"Don't cut nutrition costs either before or after calving," Paisley says. "It will cost much more in the long run."