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Meet the needs of this year’s mama cow

Chance Farmer Published on 23 December 2011
Cows watching over their calves

Cattle ranchers in the South have come through one of the most severe droughts to hit the history books.

The 12 months from October 2010 through September 2011 were the driest 12-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records.

Recovery from a drought this severe won’t happen fast.

According to the USDA drought monitor, as of this past November, 89 percent of Texas and 86 percent of Oklahoma’s pasture and range lands were listed to be in poor to very poor condition.

Some experts believe the drought in the s]South is far from over and could last another five years or even until 2020.

Facing a drought of this magnitude can be a very emotional thing; seeing pastures with no grass growing for this long takes a mental toll on a person.

But that said, cattle ranchers need to make business decisions, not emotional decisions. And decisions made today have ramifications on the health of your herd for years to come.

The biggest impact will come from how you choose to feed your cows. A cow’s nutritional requirements do not change based on whether or not we are in a drought situation – needs are needs. What does change is from where she gets her nutrition.

Unfortunately, severe drought conditions dictate that we can no longer rely on the pasture to provide the main nutrition for our cows.

As a result the gap widens between the cow’s nutritional requirements and what she can get from pasture.

If you happen to have forage standing, it’s probably there for a reason – they don’t like it and it’s not nutritionally beneficial.

From a protein and energy standpoint, the cow would need to consume twice as much to meet her needs.

What you must not do is decide to short-change your cows to try and save money. Know that there is no ideal drought-feeding situation – meeting the nutritional needs of the cow during drought conditions will cost you more money; it’s the nature of the beast.

Consider what is happening inside the cow and the impact not providing the proper nutrition could have on the 2012 calf crop – and even beyond.

Thin cows produce less colostrum and give birth to less vigorous calves that are slower to stand, have lower immunoglobulin levels, lower immunity and impaired ability to overcome early calfhood disease challenges. These problems only compound as the calf gets older.

The cow herself faces issues getting rebred. Research has shown that a cow’s body condition score at the time of calving has the greatest impact on subsequent rebreeding performance.

To maintain a 365-day calving interval, a cow must be rebred by 82 days after calving. On average, cows that calve in a lower body condition score have difficulty exhibiting their first heat by 80 days after calving.

If cows are not bred back in time, next year’s calving window widens, the calf crop is strung out longer, weaning weights are lower and you have less total pounds to sell.

It’s a bad road to go down, and it’s worse the farther down it you go. Having a good reproduction program comes back to meeting the nutritional needs of the cow.

But before you decide your feeding program strategy for these conditions, you should evaluate your current forage or grass availability.

Not only what is available on your operation, but what options are available to purchase forage. Can hay be purchased and trucked in, or are there alternative forages to grass and hay that can be fed? Secondly, we recommend evaluating the costs of these options versus purchased feeding supplements.

There are drought-situation feeding programs available to help you meet the nutritional needs of the cow and protect your herd from even greater challenges ahead, whether you have some or no forage available.

Self-fed, intake-modifying feed technologies can be an excellent way to provide feed which, in turn, helps manage forage utilization.

These technologies provide a balance of protein, energy and fat, aimed to meet the cows’ nutritional needs with minimal forage requirements.

Whichever route you choose, make sure you meet the cows’ nutritional needs. Attention to this task is even more important than in years of adequate pasture forage.

Choosing any option short of meeting the nutritional needs of the cow will impact your ability to make money and keep your herd prosperous.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

Drought strategies to limit forage needs

It can be a challenge to find forage sources to meet the nutritional needs of your herd. But there are strategies that cattlemen can implement that will help reduce the amount of forage needed. Here are three things you can do to improve your forage situation:

■ Cull the “slackers.”

“Slackers” include open cows, any cow that doesn’t calve every 365 days, cows that calve late in the season and cows with bad udders, eyes, feet or dispositions.

Each of these factors may require you to incur additional costs that we often forget about. But these costs add up quickly without returning value to your bottom line potential.

■ Evaluate pounds of calf weaned by pounds of cow weight.

After you’ve culled the “slackers,” you should evaluate cows for pounds of calf weaned per pound of cow weight. We often forget to think about the pounds of weaned calf per pound of cow weight when thinking about the value of that cow.

This is because our calves are usually close in size and small differences cannot be seen by the naked eye. In addition, heavier cows need more nutrients to maintain their weight.

However, if they are weaning a calf the same size as a cow 300 pounds less than them, they are costing more but generating the same amount of income.

For example: A 1,200-pound cow and a 1,500-pound cow each wean a 600-pound calf. A 1,200-pound cow requires 24 pounds of forage dry matter at 50 percent total-digestible nutrients (TDN), while a 1,500-pound cow requires 30 pounds of forage dry matter at 50 percent TDN.

As a result, the 1,200-pound cow may provide a better return because the weaned weight is 50 percent of the cow weight versus 40 percent of the 1,500-pound cow’s weight. The income from the two 600-pound calves is the same, but the cost to feed the 1,500-pound cow is higher.

■ Early wean calves.

In a drought situation, it does not make sense to keep calves at cowside for seven months. Keeping a calf at cowside only increases her nutritional needs.

For example, a 1,200-pound cow needs 24 pounds of forage per day. A wet cow needs 30 pounds per day to provide for her calf.

The 400-pound calf eats 10 pounds of forage per day. You are now in a situation where you need 40 pounds of forage per day. You will conserve forage if you remove the calf from the cow.  end_mark

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.


TOP: Research has shown that a cow’s body condition score at the time of calving has the greatest impact on subsequent rebreeding performance.  Staff Photo.

chance farmer

Chance Farmer

Nutrition Consultant
Land O’Lakes
Purina Feed Beef