In about a month, my husband and I will welcome our first child into the world. This feat didn’t come without effort, and it started before we saw those two pink lines. Thanks to my mother and sisters, who talked to me about the importance of folic acid in the development of a healthy baby, I began preparing my body by taking a prenatal vitamin before Baby Soukup’s first heartbeat. Since then, I have paid extra attention to what I put in my body, ensuring that I am not just consuming enough but consuming the right amount of the right stuff.

This got me thinking — how do my efforts at “fetal programming” (taking a vitamin supplement, carefully following a well-balanced diet and regularly exercising to maintain a healthy body condition) compare to what cows go through before and during gestation? As breeding season continues, do cows have what they need to grow a healthy, vigorous calf? Thinking ahead to when cows are in the third trimester and when their calves are packing on the pounds (75 percent of fetal growth occurs in the last two months of gestation), I can’t help but wonder if we will be confident then that we did everything during the early months of the cow’s gestation to ensure optimum early fetal development?

The science of fetal programming, or the effect the nutrition of a pregnant cow has on progeny, is a relatively new area of study within the beef cattle industry. According to Dr. Ron Scott, director of beef research for Purina Animal Nutrition, like humans, as an embryo in a cow develops into a fetus and grows during gestation, there are specific nutrient requirements to meet developments at each phase that are directly affected by the cow’s nutrition. From organ to muscle development in the first and second trimesters, he says, if something goes wrong or a cow’s plane of nutrition is lower mid-gestation, her progeny may still develop but may not function ideally after birth.

Two studies were conducted at the University of Nebraska comparing cows that were supplemented with protein during the last trimester with cows that received no supplementation. While birthweights were not different, heifer calves from the supplemented cows had greater weaning weights, pre-breeding weights, weights at pregnancy check, and higher pregnancy rates. In one study, heifers from the supplemented cows had a 28 percent advantage in the proportion of heifers calving during the first 21 days of the calving season. The other study reported that heifers reached puberty faster. Research has also shown that supplementing cows on winter grass has an impact on steer carcass weight and quality as well as sickness rates in the feedlot.

What about nutrition earlier in gestation? At Purina, they’ve developed a year-round cow-care program that provides a mineral and a protein supplement and is designed to provide cows with a steady plane of nutrition, regardless of stresses occurring from diets naturally varied in nutrient quality and quantity based on season, weather, environment and other factors. Scott says having a mineral and protein source available on a consistent basis has resulted in reports of heavier weaning weights from producers who utilized the program. For example, he says in hot, dry summer months or during drought conditions when forage quality is reduced, the first thing that drops is milk production, which can result in reduced weaning weights for the growing calf. But that cow is not just eating for herself and for milk production for the calf at her side; she’s also eating for the growing fetus. Scott says a lower plane of nutrition for a pregnant cow can affect fetal muscle development, which can result in reduced performance of the next calf crop before it even hits the ground.

Scott says, “If we’re doing things right, there’s no day in her life when she’s eating just for herself — she’s either pregnant, pregnant and lactating or just lactating. If she’s not, she needs to be culled.”

Each herd is different, but cattlemen should work with their veterinarians and nutrition consultants to develop a feeding plan that fits their specific needs. Just as I take extra steps to provide for our unborn baby, it’s also important for cattle producers to provide for their cows and develop nutrition plans to optimize health and performance through all phases of production.

However, while there are similarities between what humans and cows need as it relates to nutrition during pregnancy, I hope that my husband does not decide to cull me if there comes a time when I’m only eating for myself!

This editorial appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.