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5 ways to optimize genetic potential through nutrition

Anna Taylor for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 February 2018

Three months into the new year, you’ve likely outlined improvement goals for your operation. Depending on the overarching operational goals, the focus could range anywhere from improving pasture utilization to decreasing death loss on high-risk calves.

Some goals could be specific to improving productivity – heavier weaning weights, improved marbling expected progeny differences, trying a fixed-time A.I. program, etc. But to be successful at any of these goals, it will take time, money and planning. And there’s a good chance, regardless of the goals you set for your operation, nutrition will impact the outcome.

If you’re going to invest in better genetics, it’s time to invest in a nutrition program to support it. Below are five practices to help optimize your cattle’s genetic potential through a solid nutrition program.

1.  Take time to understand the big picture. Step back and think about all you are trying to accomplish. If you are working on genetic improvement within your herd, it is not a good idea to short your cows during gestation.

The cow is the only source of nutrients for that calf and, if you aren’t meeting the cow’s requirements during gestation, you aren’t meeting the fetus’s requirements either. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to demonstrate fetal programming can have long-lasting consequences on the calf.

Academic studies have shown a number of different implications, ranging from decreased breeding rates to altered carcass characteristics, from a decreased plane of nutrition in utero. After evaluating this type of research, it would be safe to assume fetally programmed calves have a lower likelihood of meeting their genetic potential.

Make sure you are treating the cow right so the cow can take care of its calf and, ultimately, take care of your bottom line.

2.  Optimize health through nutrition. Cattle require nutrients to support normal growth and development. Many times, we focus on vitamin and mineral nutrition, but other important nutrients, like protein and energy, are also necessary for cattle to reach their genetic potential.

Protein and energy are not only needed by the cow but are also required to help rumen microbes function, replicate and thrive. Well-fed rumen microbes provide energy and high-quality protein to the animal, supporting growth and development.

In addition to supporting growth, protein provided to the cow allows maximum forage digestion and utilization by the rumen microbes. Highlighting protein and energy needs doesn’t mean we should minimize the importance of a good vitamin and mineral program. Vitamins and trace minerals are critical for health and immune function, and sick cattle rarely meet their genetic potential.

3.  Know what your cattle are eating. It’s hard to know whether you need to supplement protein or energy if you don’t know what you are starting with in the first place. In comparison, we don’t generally buy a bull without knowing his expected progeny difference numbers, so why do we feed cattle without knowing the nutrients in the feed?

Whether you’re feeding cattle or have cows grazing, understanding nutrient content and feed intake will help identify the gaps in what the cattle are consuming and whether or not the requirements of the animal are being met.

Depending on the time of year, grazing cattle may be consuming forage that covers most of their requirements whereas, in the wintertime, animals might need more supplementation. Your pastures might vary drastically from one location to the next. But it is hard to know exactly what those cattle are missing from their diet if you don’t know what nutrients they are consuming. The best way to understand what nutrients cattle are getting and missing is through feed analysis.

4.  Develop a nutrition plan. I know this sounds obvious, but how often do we change what we are doing nutritionally? Think about how much time you spend developing a reproduction plan each year between pre-breeding shots, evaluating sire expected progeny differences and evaluating your own calving records. Now think about one variable that has an impact on those decisions every day: nutrition.

Nutrition can impact many things from how those cows respond to their vaccinations to pregnancy rates. Therefore, making a plan around nutrition should come even before you start thinking about reproduction. It’s important to develop that plan around your climate, geography, stage of production and your feed analysis. Evaluating all of these different factors will take time.

Put that time and effort into thinking about what feedstuffs you will need to help you achieve nutritional targets to support normal growth and development of your herd. This will likely mean having different nutritional plans for different groups of cattle, like heifers versus cows – but, in the long run, it will pay off through improvements in operational productivity.

5.  Ask for help. With everything you do on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to forget about nutrition. But cattle need specific nutrients every day to meet their requirements for growth and maintenance. How those requirements are met throughout the year can change, depending on price, time of year, weather, etc. But having someone to help you understand the dynamics of nutrition as it relates to your bottom line and cattle productivity can make the difference in your operation.

A nutritionist can help you develop a program to help you optimize the genetic potential of your cattle. They can also help improve your profitability by evaluating your current situation with “what if” scenarios. Nutritionists, whether in the public or private sector, should be trusted advisers who help you accomplish your long-term goals of optimizing genetic potential and improving profitability of your herd.

Ultimately, remember:

Genetics + Environment = Phenotype

This highlights how important the nutritional environment for cattle is to enable them to meet their genetic potential.  end mark

Anna Taylor
  • Anna Taylor

  • Cargill Animal Nutrition
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