We as humans understand the importance of a well-balanced diet. It’s important that those raising beef cattle understand how their short-term nutrition decisions can result in long-term consequences for their animals too.

At CattleCon ‘24, Dusty Abney, Ph.D., of Cargill Nutrition spoke in detail about this topic. He began with the good news: Almost everybody is doing well with overall beef cattle nutrition. However, he added, “if you’re scoring a C or a B, we want to get you to an A.”

Looking again at humans, Abney listed some bad short-term decisions with real consequences – not changing our oil on time; skipping physical or dental exams; eating poorly; and not exercising. On livestock operations, similar examples could be not feeding minerals all the time; providing inadequate energy and protein supplementation; feeding heifers too well; and no fly control.

“Why do we do these things?” Abney asked, since most of the time we know these are less-than-desirable decisions. The answers were obvious: We’re pressed for time. We’re dealing with the perception of cost vs. value. We don’t fully realize or internalize what the outcomes may be. And we minimize bad outcomes when they happen – or we’re purposefully not looking for them.

We as humans like to make excuses when things don’t go right. Abney listed some of the “greatest hits” on beef operations: The cows know what they need and will find it (which is not true – you are responsible for what those cattle need). Skipping a few days won’t hurt them. We can’t afford to feed the cows that much. Daddy didn’t feed his cows like that.

Abney said all of these are unacceptable excuses. “Your inability to measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t real … View the money spent on your operation as an investment, not just an expense,” he said.

Remember that feed tolerance by cattle doesn’t equate to performance. Your guiding nutrition principle shouldn’t be “What can I get away with?”

“‘Getting by’ isn’t how we find our optimum,” Abney continued. “And current input costs and inflation mean we can’t settle for marginal performance. ‘Doing what you have to’ is a valid reason, but don’t let it turn into an excuse or an SOP [standard operating procedure].”

Recognize and prioritize mineral supplementation

It doesn’t matter how strong your herd’s genetics are if you aren’t providing the nutrition they need. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

The U.S. is home to its smallest cow herd since the 1970s but producing more beef than ever. Producers need to focus on quality – which begins much earlier than you may think.

“Short-change the cow today and her offspring will return the favor for years to come,” Abney said. “Great heifers are made in the womb, not the dry lot. Taking good care of an animal nutritionally – not over- or under-providing – pays off in the near and far term.”

He noted that cows’ body condition scores matter from birth through harvest. Outside influences matter during gestation too, down to the genetic level. Abney said it doesn’t matter how good your genetics are if you don’t take care of your cows.

“If you haven’t been doing this right for years, you’re losing pounds – and we’re paid for pounds,” he added.

So what really happens if you don’t feed minerals properly? “In the short-term, nothing you’ll see,” Abney said. “Depending on how alert you are, it might be invisible for a while. But sooner or later, it will cost you more than you saved” – in cow and bull reproduction, in weaning weights, in overall immune function and in vaccine failures.

The point Abney was driving home is that supplementation matters for every animal every day. While we as humans can’t be perfect, we can recognize and prioritize what our cattle need.

“Examine, plan and execute – every day,” he said. “Start with testing your forage. If you don’t know what you’ve got, you don’t know what you need.”

by Courtney Llewellyn