After all, trudging across fields when it’s windy and cold — and sometimes snowing — isn’t anyone’s favorite task. The cold, wind, dampness and mud all take a toll on your herd, 24 hours a day, increasing their energy requirements dramatically. And, for spring calving cows, that’s especially significant. Their bodies are already struggling to meet the energy demands of a maturing fetus. Consequently, it’s crucial they remain in sound body condition to successfully calve, produce milk and rebreed promptly.
Provide adequate nutrition for pregnant cows
“The last third of gestation accounts for about 70 to 80 percent of calf growth,” said Les Anderson, Ph.D., extension professor at the University of Kentucky. “During the last two weeks, an average calf grows about two pounds each day.” Anderson explained that cows must at least maintain body condition — and preferably gain slightly — during that last period so they will have sufficient energy stores to calve rapidly and easily. He said one common myth is that increased feeding will increase calf birth weight, thus raising the chances for dystocia.
He said a number of studies have explored this and concluded the opposite is true. “Cows that lost weight during the last trimester had smaller calves, but also had more problems calving,” he remarked. “They simply didn’t have sufficient energy stores in their bodies to calve rapidly and easily on their own. On the other hand, cows that maintained or gained weight had a lower incidence of calving problems — even though their calves weighed slightly more.” But, the benefits of maintaining body condition during winter don’t stop there. Body condition also affects fertility, rebreeding and pregnancy, all of which can have a direct impact on herd profitability.
Consider long-term cattle health, profitability in decisions
Lee Dickerson, Ph.D., and senior cattle consultant at Purina Animal Nutrition, agrees that body condition throughout the entire reproductive cycle can make a significant difference on reproductive success and overall net return to the producer. Dr. Dickerson recommends “targeting a body condition score of 6 at calving, a 5.5 at bull turn-in, AI (artificial insemination), or ET (embryo transfer) and a 4.5 to 5 at weaning.” So what keeps producers — and Anderson says it’s a big percentage of them — from achieving the desired body condition, especially during winter?
He says the short-term cost of cattle feed supplements during the winter months often blinds producers to the long-term return they will receive on that investment. “With feed costs being what they have been over the past few years, producers ask, can I afford it right now?” Anderson explained. “Ultimately, if they don’t make the expenditure, they end up paying the price because their cows will have a reduced ability to conceive — and conceive early, plus a lower overall reproduction rate. But, they don’t see that loss right off.” He said the University of Kentucky Extension helps producers make better decisions through “enterprise analyses” that evaluate potential expenditures against projected calving rates, weaning weights, rebreeding rates and pregnancy rates. “This makes intelligent decisions a lot easier,” he explained.
The cost of skimping on nutrition
Anderson described a retrospective analysis his extension conducted for a producer who had experienced an excessively dry summer and fall. The producer opted not to spend the $6,000 to $7,000 needed for feed to maintain body condition from calving to breeding. On review, they found he only achieved a 42 percent pregnancy rate. That lower rate resulted in a $17,000 loss — more than twice the amount he would have spent on feed to achieve his usual 85 to 90 percent pregnancy rate.
Supplementation during winter months
Clearly, maintaining body condition in the winter is important. To achieve it, supplementation is required. “You need to boost the nutrient supply when the weather gets colder to maintain the cows’ nutrient needs,” Anderson explained. “Even with balanced forage, a rudimentary ration won’t take into account their additional needs during these months.”
Purina has a wide range of cattle feed supplements, such as Purina® Accuration® supplements, to provide that extra nutrition opportunity. Purina® Accuration® supplements not only provide balanced protein and energy, but also incorporate Intake Modifying Technology® which enhances digestion and aims to prevent overeating by stimulating cattle to eat smaller, more frequent meals. This self-regulated eating means cattle eat just what they need, so less feed is wasted and less hand feeding is required.
Pre-winter preparation, spring moderation
In addition to supplementing during winter, Anderson emphasized the importance of getting cattle in shape before the cold weather hits. Plus, he cautioned producers to avoid the “rush to grass” in the spring, which can also have a negative impact on rebreeding. “Early spring grass is so nutrient dense that it passes through animals rapidly and they are not able to absorb all the nutrients. They can actually get in a negative energy balance because they don’t have it in their bodies long enough to absorb it,” he said.
Anderson recommends adding supplements at this time as well, to slow the passage rate and keep energy up. But, most of all at this time of year, Anderson says it’s important to keep in mind that “when the weather gets bad and you don’t want to go outside, that’s when the cattle need you most. They’re trying to fight that weather, and they need more energy. It’s well-documented that if they lose weight during this time, it will affect their ability to rebreed.”