Nutrition impacts AI Success
The right feed before and after breeding makes a difference
Less than 10% of beef cattle are bred using AI – a huge difference from the dairy industry, where it’s rare to find bulls doing it the old-fashioned way. But for those who have made the leap, nutrition is a vital part of their program. Long-time AI-ing rancher Tim Todd and Montana Extension Specialist Dr. Megan Van Emon share their expertise as we get closer to breeding season.
Of course, nutrition isn’t the only factor in a successful breeding program, but it’s a big one. According to Todd, who’s been doing AI since 1973, “It seems to me, there’s about 10 different factors that go into an AI program and if any of them are not right, it will hurt your conception rate,” Even so, Todd says, “Nutrition is the key to a successful AI program without a doubt – before and after AI.”
Experts agree that the best kind of buffet for your cows in breeding season is an all-you-can-eat one. This is especially true when you’re working with still-growing heifers.
“We want to make sure that those heifers are in a good nutritional plane- they’re positive, still increasing their body weight and body condition,” says Van Emon. “We want them in that 5-6 body condition range, and just a good quality diet in general is going to get you there.”
What that might be depends on where you’re at and what’s available, says Van Emon. “A good high energy feed stuff. Alfalfa hay is a really good protein and energy source. Silage, anything like that can be part of a really good high-quality ration. We’re just wanting to meet those protein and energy needs for growth and maintenance.”
According to Todd, “It’s awfully hard to get a gain on a cow, especially a young cow, if there’s a calf sucking on them, but we try to just give them everything they can eat, or everything they need, to try to get them on the gain prior to AI season.”
Todd likes to give them at least 45-60 days after calving to pack on the pounds and maximize their body condition before AI.
As far as nutrition goes, Todd says, “Right after they calve, we start thinking about breeding.” At his ranch near Ryegate, Montana, Todd makes sure his heifers and cows have all they can eat. He even lays out a blanket of hay on fresh green grass.
“We try to keep the best quality hay we’ve got for after they calve and start preparing them for breeding season.”
“The 30 days after we AI them is about as important as the 35-40 days before.” Todd “Most of the time, those cows are out chasing grass, but we do put out some hay for them, and actually keep the breeders tubs out for them, and also keep them on a good salt and mineral program.”
Any FFAer should be able to tell you the top four minerals you need for a healthy herd, but as far as breeding goes, one stands out.
“Manganese is kind of your big reproduction trace mineral,” says Van Emon. “So, I definitely recommend having a manganese sort of mineral in your supplement, but don’t forget about the selenium, zinc, and copper as well. They all kind of come together and help with that first reproductive cycle for those heifers and AI.”
Some producers opt to invest in an injectable mineral that touts better breeding numbers, like MULTIMIN. It costs more up front, but according to Todd, it’s worth it.
“We believe we’re seeing increased conception rates with it,” says Todd. “It’s got copper, zinc, and manganese, which we feel is important for a good breed-up.”
Todd also puts out breeder’s tubs. “What we do is, we start about 30-40 days before AI,” says Todd. “We’ll put out breeder’s tubs for them, and actually mineral tubs too. Basically, give them all they need or all they can eat.”
According to Van Emon, a good mineral program helps with both reproductive development in your heifers and fetal development in bred cows. In addition, it works as a sort of “insurance policy” against the negative effects of stress.
“As low-stress as you make the breeding season, working cattle is still a slight stressful event for those heifers,” says Van Emon. “Those trace minerals are really what helps mitigate that stress.”
The one nutrient that’s routinely underrated is water. Contaminated water is harmful for your whole herd, but pregnant or lactating cows are significantly more at risk for complications. Water toxicity can cause illness and abortions in cows, but a lot of people don’t know that bad water can also complicate your mineral program. If it’s high in sulfates, it can bind up your copper, keeping it from being absorbed. The most common side effect of a copper deficiency is depressed or delayed estrus – which is a big problem for your AI program. A simple water test can help make sure you’re putting out the right kind of mineral and keep your herd healthy.
AI success is not always about what you feed, though – sometimes it’s about what you don’t feed. Moldy hay is never an ideal feed source, but it’s especially important to avoid during breeding season. Moldy hay can cause mycotic abortions, as well as other complications.
It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your nitrates. Small grains can really suck up a lot of nitrates from the soil, so Todd recommends testing your grain hay. This is another instance where it’s important to know what’s in your water – if it’s high in nitrates, be especially careful to avoid high-nitrate feed.
According to Van Emon, one of the best things you can do to increase your success is minimize stress. If you can reduce the stress of feed transitions, that helps a lot. Typically, during AI, producers feed their cattle a grain-based diet while they’re penned up and the quick transition to pasture can be jarring.
“Moving those heifers from a dry lot, where they’re in that really high-quality ration, very energy dense and nutrient-dense, and then usually within the day or within the first four days after AI they’re turning them out – sometimes those heifers can go backwards,” says Van Emon.
“Green grass isn’t not nutrient-dense, it’s just a different nutrient density. And they’re out grazing, they’re walking, putting on a lot of miles,” says Van Emon. “If you can feed them more of a forage-based diet in the dry lot, that can help.”
Alternatively, Van Emon says if you’re set up for it, you can just manage them out in the pasture – eliminating the diet transitions altogether.
When it comes to AI, there’s a lot to keep in mind. But there’s still room for creativity, says Van Emon, especially when it’s dry or you need to find something different than you usually use.
“Corn right now is on the rise, so we may be looking at some alternative to corn, maybe some wheat midds?”
Feeding the ladies is only one part of the equation, though, says Van Emon – people often forget to pay the same kind of attention to their clean-up bulls. “Make sure those bulls are in good condition as well, so they can cover anybody that didn’t take to AI.”
The main thing for both cows and bulls, says Van Emon, is “making sure they’re in good condition when they go into the breeding season – it really helps with those numbers.” And the best way to do that? An all-you-can-eat buffet.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News