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How much can nutrition spending reduce repro and health costs?

Stephen B. Blezinger for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 April 2021

Most producers recognize that anything done on the farm or ranch comes with a cost. This is true with the cow herd for critical functions such as reproduction and health. Common costs include the purchase of bulls or A.I. supplies for breeding.

Others include vaccines, dewormers, antibiotics or vet expenses in general.

One of the cow-calf producer’s biggest expenses is nutrition. In many cases, nutrition makes up 40% to 60% of total annual production costs. Often, producers think about nutrition in terms of just meeting the requirements for the animal. A key fact is: All body functions in the animal depend on nutrition – breeding and reproduction, health of the cow, health of the calf, milk production, calf growth and weaning weights – all of it.

So how we plan and strategize nutrition costs can have a direct effect on what we spend on reproduction or on animal health. If nutrition is compromised or misplanned, common results are negative effects on reproduction and health. For reproduction, this is commonly reduced breeding performance, lower conceptions, fewer live calves born per cows exposed. With animal health, this results in more sickness or other issues (i.e., foot rot, stress effects, calves scouring, cow losses).

Not only do increased health issues cause more out-of-pocket expense, they also decrease performance such as lower milk production and subsequent lighter weaning weights for calves. In both cases, there is a cost, either in lower production or more immediate out-of-pocket. It’s common that if the producer compromises on nutrition to save money, this will come back to haunt him in the form of lowered reproductive performance or higher health costs.

For the typical cow-calf operation, revenues are dependent on total pounds of beef produced. This may differ somewhat if other marketing programs are in place, such as the sale of cows, heifers or bulls for replacement purposes, as these are often sold by the head. In any case, product sales (pounds of beef, head of cattle) are dependent on product produced. As such, reproduction is a critical element of profitable production.

Research has shown that reproductive performance has a greater net effect on operation profitability than improved weaning weights. In many cases, the performance of the repro program may be viewed in terms of calving percentages: the number of live calves produced per cows exposed or bred. The more calves born per total cows exposed, the better the potential for positive revenues. In many cases, a given group of cows may not breed as effectively or efficiently as is desirable or necessary. Missed breedings or even late breeding can be expensive.

Acceptable reproductive performance is largely affected by nutrition. To cycle and breed properly, cows need to be in adequate body condition, generally around a score of 5 or 6. To achieve this body condition, cows must receive appropriate levels of protein and energy. If they are allowed to drop below a body condition of around 5, at or close to breeding time, cycling and conceptions may suffer. The further below 5 they drop, the less likely they will breed.

Some producers recognize this and take it to an extreme, spending considerably more money on nutrition with the thought in mind that breeding and reproduction can be maximized. The same with health. But like anything else, nutrition costs need to be evaluated and properly planned to be sure the money is wisely and strategically spent.

It is very difficult to establish the direct correlation of dollars spent on the nutritional program and how this affects repro or health cost other than what research and experience have shown. For instance, a study out of south Texas showed that feeding of whole cottonseed to beef cows at a suboptimal body condition score (3.5 to 4) increased conceptions to that equal to cows at a more optimal score (5). Thus, the cost of the whole cottonseed helped improve the conception rates in cows that were thinner than desired. What the study did not show was the comparative cost of maintaining the cows at a more optimal condition.

We know that if we do not meet nutrient requirements, performance will suffer. If producers do not provide necessary protein levels in the cow’s diet, she will not maintain adequate body condition, breed, produce milk, produce or grow and wean an optimal-weight, healthy calf. The money not spent results in a higher cost to the producer further down the road.

Attempts to save money on a mineral program will have similar results. In many cases, this is either not feeding a mineral at all (which requires year-round supplementation almost everywhere) or feeding the wrong mineral, one not formulated for the operation or region in general. An improper mineral program will also have direct effects on cow and calf health, since many minerals and vitamins are directly involved in the performance of the immune system.

A strategic approach to nutritional costs?

Approach this in a stepwise fashion:

1. Recognizing the effect nutrition has on repro and health is the first step. If the cow’s nutrient requirements are not met, particularly before breeding, during pregnancy and at and after calving, it can be problematic and expensive.

2. Evaluate production records from previous years including breeding, calving, weaned calf production, weaned or sale weights. Sum up vet and medicine costs. Finally, look at nutritional expenses including cost of forage production. Identify production losses, excessive expenses, where improvements can be made. This should be done ongoing and at a minimum every six months.

3. Understand what these nutrient needs are. Every nutrient is important. The most limiting nutrient is the one not being met or not met adequately.

4. Know what your forage base delivers as compared to when requirements are highest or at most critical stages as mentioned in No. 1 above. This is very specific to your operation. This requires a detailed forage testing program and is some of the best money spent.

5. Evaluate your forage production program to determine how to optimize the forage availability and quality on the operation. Optimize forage production as much as possible. If you grow it, there is a cost, but it is generally lower than if you must purchase outright.

6. Create a calendar that compares supply versus demand. With adequate data, you can develop a graph such as Figure 1. This can illustrate important timing.

Protein supply vs. demand

7. Evaluate various nutrient supplementation methods – commodities, manufactured dry feeds, liquid feeds, tubs/blocks in terms of cost per unit of protein (initial) and other nutrients. Look for the best costs of critical nutrients based on labor availability, time constraints, equipment, etc.

8. Evaluate mineral requirements and determine if it is feasible to have a custom mineral build for your specific requirements. This may depend largely on the size of your herd and what available manufacturer batch size requirements are. If this is not available, look at available product offerings (and costs) to determine the best retail product available in your area. This will take some work. It may be helpful to get in contact with a nutritionist to help with this process since there are many variables beyond just the nutrient comparisons. Be careful of various bells and whistles that may only be tag dressing.  end mark

Stephen B. Blezinger
  • Stephen B. Blezinger

  • Nutritional and Management Consultant
  • Reveille Livestock Concepts
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