Farmers and ranchers understandably get tired of hearing how they need to cut production costs. They’ve cut, and they’ve cut again, yet someone is always there to tell them they need to cut more, especially in these days of high prices for feed, fuel and equipment.

But while producers understand the importance of controlling production costs, they also recognize that cutting too much in the wrong places can reduce rather than increase profits. Nutrition is a prime example, where excessive economizing can negatively impact reproduction and calf health.

For cow-calf producers during fall and winter, the name of the game is maintaining condition. The cost of improving the condition of thin, gestating females during the winter generally is prohibitive, so ideally, the cow herd enters the season in good shape.

Monitor body condition

In most parts of the country this summer, weather conditions have been favorable for forage growth and cattle nutrition, says Colorado State University Extension beef specialist Jack Whittier, PhD. The fortunate consequence is that most cows are headed into the winter in better condition than they have in recent years.

Some fat cover and good body condition in the fall cow herd can help minimize the need for expensive feed inputs through the winter, Whittier says, but he warns against complacency. With better U.S. hay production and big grain crops this year, feed costs are down from 2008 levels but remain high overall. So while it’s a good idea to minimize purchased feeds where possible, Whittier says “don’t assume they’ll stay fat on their own.” Monitor their body condition and don’t let them drop too far, or reproduction could suffer.

Looking back, Whittier says that prior to and during the breeding season — May, June and July for most spring-calving herds — you want cows with high body condition and gaining weight. If cows have body-condition scores of mid 5 to mid 6 at breeding, you have more latitude for losses later than if they are at mid 4 or lower. Even at BCS 5 at breeding, if cows are gaining weight and condition during that period, they are better off than those losing weight. Females entering the breeding season in declining condition are not only less likely to conceive but also less likely to maintain condition later in gestation or deliver and wean a healthy calf.

Fortunately, he says, timely rainfall in most areas this year put cows in good condition coming into breeding, so now the focus should be on cost-effectively maintaining condition or keeping losses to a minimum.

Cows in good condition in the fall can afford to lose some through the winter. “Think of it like a bank account,” Whittier says. Cows with BCS of high 6 or better in the fall can lose 1 to 1.5 BCS points without sacrificing reproduction. Females entering the winter at BCS 4, on the other hand, could suffer reproductive failure after just a moderate loss of condition.

As the cow or heifer moves into later gestation, maintaining or adding body condition becomes increasingly costly. Extension specialists at Texas A&M University provide an example, based on a 1,200-pound pregnant cow, on a ration of Bermudagrass hay and 20 percent-protein range-cube supplements. To improve the cow’s BCS from 4 to 5 during mid-gestation would require 24 pounds of hay and 4.75 pounds of supplement per day, at a supplement cost of $31.39 over a 43-day period. During late gestation, the same one-point improvement in BCS would require 6.5 pounds of supplement per day, for a supplement cost of $79.20.

Whittier also advises producers to plan for contingencies. A colder winter and heavy snowfall could increase the need for supplemental feeding, and producers should have feed on hand or a plan for securing supplies if needed. Whittier notes that in many areas this year, first-cutting hay suffered rain damage and quality losses, pulling it out of the dairy market and making more available to beef producers at lower prices.

Maintain minerals

Veterinarian Doug Scholz, director of veterinary services for Novartis Animal Health, agrees that most cows and heifers are headed into winter in good condition, and producers have supplies of stockpiled forages and hay. Supplements become the next concern, and he especially stresses the need for minerals.

Scholz says tight times can lead to producers getting stingy on their mineral programs, which can really cost them in the long run, especially with replacement heifers. The first-calf heifer, he points out, is still growing during gestation and still building her own immune system. The gestating fetus places additional strains on her nutritional reserves. With proper nutrition, heifers will respond much better to vaccinations and produce more antibodies.

Conversely, shortages of key mineral nutrients during this time can result in long-term losses in the heifer’s productivity and threaten the health of her calf. The quality of colostrum from a first-calf heifer, Scholz explains, already is lower than that from a mature cow. Nutrient deficiencies during gestation amplify the problem, resulting in a poor transfer of immunity to the calf. Selenium, copper and zinc, he says, are key, yet often deficient, mineral nutrients for the immune system in heifers and cows. A good mineral program, Sholz says, provides relatively low-cost insurance against reproductive losses and disease.

Remember protein

Whittier recommends a focus on grazing standing forage as much as possible to control costs. Good summer grass growth should mean ranchers in many areas have good supplies of standing dormant forage for winter grazing. Quality of the forage, though, is generally low, meaning protein supplementation is important for promoting intake and improving digestibility.

Where natural forage is limited, producers should look at low-cost feed sources available in their area, such as standing crop residue, baled stalks and supplements such as distillers’ grains. Even wheat straw can make a good feed when injected with a molasses-based supplement or blended with high-moisture distillers’ byproducts to improve nutrient value and palatability.

Another factor, Scholz says, is that with fertilizer prices high, producers understandably might have cut back on fertilizing their pastures. Less nitrogen on pastures and hay ground can mean lower protein content in forages. He advises producers to test forages, if possible, and supplement protein as needed. Byproduct feeds such as distillers’ grains can make excellent supplements for cattle on dormant winter forage or crop residue.

At the University of Nebraska, for example, researchers are conducting a multi-year study on the effects of supplementing late-gestation cows on cornstalks with range cubes made with two-thirds dried distillers’ grains on cow and calf performance. During the first two years of the trial, the researchers found that feeding the supplement did not influence calf birth and weaning weights, cow bodyweight prior to calving or calving interval. Cow BCS and the percentage of cows cyclic prior to breeding, however, increased for supplemented cows.

In another demonstration, researchers at Iowa State University conducted a cornstalk-grazing project from December 2008 to January 2009, comparing continuous corn-residue grazing without distillers’ grains supplementation to strip-grazed cornstalks with DDG supplementation. The treatment group, consisting of 30 spring-calving Angus-based cows, had access to about 10 acres of cornstalks each week for seven weeks. They supplied the DDG supplement at 5 to 6 pounds per head per day from day 17 through day 49.

The control group of 30 similar cows had access to about 60 acres of cornstalks without grain or co-product supplementation. Both the control and treatment groups received grass-legume hay for 12 of the 49 days due to ice conditions. The researchers evaluated body-condition scores at the beginning and end of the demonstration.

The treatment group receiving the DDG supplementation in the strip-grazed system maintained their body-condition score of 5.7 even with three ice events that reduced feed availability for 12 of the 49 days. During this same period, the BCS of the control cows decreased from a beginning score of 5.7 to 5.4.

The researchers estimate the DDG-supplemented system provided an economic advantage of $18.82 per head over the continuous-grazed control group. This difference compares the DDG and hay supplementation costs of the treatment group to the control group’s actual hay and estimated DDG cost to increase the control cows’ BCS by 0.3 points. They also note that producers can successfully use electric fencing to graze non-fenced corn fields. Researchers conclude that by using strip grazing and supplements, cow-calf producers can more efficiently utilize feed resources, reduce winter-stored feed costs and maintain cow body condition through a variety of weather conditions. 

Nutrition a key step toward healthy heifers

Novartis Animal Health recently launched “Healthy Heifer,” a heifer-management program designed specifically to maximize the long-term value of beef replacement heifers through established health and management protocols. Healthy Heifer is a veterinarian-verified management program that enables replacement heifers to reach their full genetic and reproductive potential by minimizing disease challenges. The program emphasizes prevention, rather than treatment, in order to reduce the risk of disease and other health setbacks that frequently inhibit heifer growth and reproductive performance.

Veterinarian Doug Scholz, the company’s director of veterinary services, says the program focuses on five key management areas:

  • Prenatal care
  • Colostrum management
  • Nutrition
  • Vaccination
  • Growth and development

Producers enrolled in Healthy Heifer are provided with established protocols that include respiratory and repro-ductive vaccinations, parasite control, mineral supplementation, pregnancy checking and other best management practices.