Sustained nutrition and optimal cow performance

by Tamara Scully
There’s a new paradigm in cattle feeding. Northern New York beef producers pulled up a seat at the table, joining together in several community venues to view a presentation by Ted Perry, animal nutritionist for Purina, and former Cornell University Beef Extension and Research Specialist, to hear just what a new outlook on cattle feeding protocols could mean on their farm operations.

“The educators in Northern New York work together to provide a livestock program for all types of livestock,” Betsy Hodge, Livestock Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, St. Lawrence County said.
“This is new information,” Hodge said. “Most of the time we don’t consider that brood cows need anything special in their diets, and rightly so, because we generally have better quality forages in the Northeast. However, the long term effects on calves are quite significant” if the diet is poor.
Meeting nutritional needs

Purina’s Sustained Nutrition feeding approach focuses on feeding the cow year-round, throughout the entire life cycle, not only during key periods. It is the opposite of the cheap feeding mentality, where trying to reduce feeding costs as much as possible, and allowing body conditioning scores to decrease at times, is an accepted practice.

A brood cow, Perry said, is “the only livestock species expected to lose weight during gestation.” Condition loss during periods of drought, winter or green up are now commonly accepted. Research, however, has demonstrated that “the first two trimesters set up everything else.” In utero stress caused by inadequate feeding follows the calf throughout its lifetime, impacting overall health, weight gain, and breeding ability, Perry emphasized.

“Depending on mom’s nutrition status, we can affect placental development,” Perry said. The blood flow to the placenta provide nourishment, allowing the liver, lungs and other organs to adequately develop. It also increases muscle fiber number, as muscle fiber development peaks 60 days after gestation.
“We can affect the rib eye very early on,” he said.

Supplementation

A University of Nebraska study showed that the weaning size of calves varied when the only factor altered was whether or not the mothers received  supplementation during the last trimester. This three-year study followed calves whose mothers were fed one pound of 36 percent protein supplement, three times a week, and a group fed no supplement. All other factors were controlled. Those calves with lower weaning weights, Perry said, never caught up on weight gain, had difficulty achieving pregnancy and had decreased rates of birthing unassisted. These low weight calves were from the non-supplemented group of mothers.

The immune system of calves “goes back to the cow,” Perry said. “The calf has to have an active immune system,” in order to respond to colostrum. While high-quality colostrum is imperative, having a healthier calf at birth is the best defense.

“Calves that get sick within 28 days average 35 pounds lighter at weaning,” Perry said. Another benefit of Sustained Nutrition feeding is that vaccinations are more effective when given to a healthy animal, and poor immunity leads to scours.

While the focus is on breeding and buying better bulls, focusing on feeding mothers optimal diets throughout their lifetime could help to alleviate many common issues. Respiratory diseases, the number one cause of feedlot mortality, could be reduced through healthy immune system building.

“Feeding the cow will have an effect on how the heifers bred early,” Perry said, and could decrease the percentage of cows open at pregnancy check, and increase the number of calves born in the first 21 days of calving season.

“From the time she is bred — or even weaning to calving — that cow should put on 200 pounds,” in order to maintain body condition, Perry said. Traditionally, by the time any supplementation happens, the cow has already lost weight. This approach has a negative impact on calve health.

Sustained Feeding meets the nutritional needs for protein, energy and minerals on a continual basis. The biological priorities for using nutrients are: primarily to maintain; then to grow; then for lactation; and lastly for reproduction. Reproduction is the first aspect to be negatively impacted in a substandard diet. In a cow/calf operation, inadequate maternal nutrition has ongoing consequences.

Meeting optimal nutritional needs

In Texas, studies have found that cattle supplemented year-round required less overall supplementation than those supplemented only in time of stress.

“With proper pasture management, and a mineral program, that is all the supplementation program they need for the cows,” he said. It is easier and more productive to maintain weight, rather than fighting to gain back what was lost.

One milliliter of rumen fluid contains 10 billion bacteria, one million protozoa, and 10 thousand fungi. Increasing this microbial population is key to maintaining health. Microbes provide volatile fatty acids, and microbes are used as a protein and energy source for the cattle. The more microbes, the better. And microbes need minerals.

Minerals, said Perry, make everything else more efficient.

Perry discussed studies from the University of Missouri, in which the microbial population was shown to be increased simply by feeding a balanced ration. Cows on a balanced diet showed 100 percent microbial activity. When the ration was broken down, and only the hay was fed for two weeks, the cows lost 60 percent of their microbial population. When the crude protein or mineral portions were fed alone, they lost 40 percent of their microbes.

“Certainly we want to have minerals out all the time,” Perry said. “Minerals are the single most important supplement that we can give.”

Northeast advantage

While much of the work Perry discussed was done on poor pasture, and in drought-prone areas in the West or Mid-West regions of the country, operators in the Northeast work under much more optimal conditions.
Perry stated that if the cows are rotationally grazed, and eating lush green grass, then they only need a 6 percent phosphorous mineral, while milking cows would need a bit more.

“The higher the quality of the forage, the less phosphorous you are going to need.”

Selenium deficiency is a problem in the region, but when a mineral supplement has the maximum amount of selenium, there should be no problem, as the legal limit is three times more than a cow actually needs, Perry said.

“Where we think the cow herd is low in minerals, I want to hit them with organics,” Perry said. But otherwise, inorganic minerals are fine. Generally, cows will “inhale’ minerals when they are first offered, indicating that they probably have been lacking.

Fall calving, where the cows are on pasture during pregnancy, is gaining in popularity around the country, Perry said.

“You guys have really high-quality pasture. The only thing I question about fall calving in the Northeast is that we are asking that cow to have her peak energy needs during the winter time,” Perry said. “As long as you have the feed resources available to keep her going through that, she can still maximize her milk, and she’ll be fine.”

The Sustained Feeding program is all about meeting the cow’s nutritional needs, continually.
“Let’s give the cows what they need, when they need it, and let’s set her up to do her thing and get out of her way, Perry said. “We can develop diets around what the cows need.”

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