There’s the science to beef cattle production and then there’s the art to beef cattle production. Art can only take beef cattle producers so far, and then science must fine-tune the operation. The successful beef cattle producer must mix the science and art of beef cattle production in order to make wise management decisions. If one (science or art) is neglected, then the information required to make management decisions is incomplete.
Figure 1 Cow pieology is the study of cow pies, but it’s certainly not a science. It’s an art that beef cattle producers have practiced for many years. Many beef producers observe cow pies to determine when to start supplemental feeding or when to rotate the cattle to a different pasture. The shape, size, color and texture can tell a story about the cow’s diet quality.
By observing the cow pie, one can get an indication of the quality of the animal’s diet. This is not a science but rather an art that can be used as an indicator. Figure 1 is a cow pie from a pregnant cow eating hay that tested 14.8 percent protein, 28.2 percent fiber and 57.3 percent TDN or energy. This hay met the cow’s requirements for protein (7.8 percent) and TDN (53.2 percent). This cow pie was flat, round and dark in color. The fiber content in the hay was low (28.2 percent); therefore, the hay was easily digested.
Figure 2 The cow pie in Figure 2 shows a remarkably different shape. It was not flat and round but rather the cow pie is hard, stacked and showed grooves or waves. When this cow pie landed on the ground, it stacked one on top of the other. This cow was eating hay that tested 5.1 percent protein, 31.5 percent fiber and 53.7 percent TDN. A cow pie with this shape usually is a sign of high fiber and low digestibility. In this example, the protein content was very low (5.1 percent). Because of the low protein in the diet, the digestibility of the protein and other nutrients is often seriously decreased. A supply of protein above the minimum promotes healthy microorganisms in the rumen to aid the digestion process. Due to the poor hay growing conditions in 2011, a lot of cow pies in January and February will be looking like Figure 2. During this time of year, many cows will be lactating; therefore, body condition will decline, milk production will be reduced, colostrum concentration will be reduced, which may result in increased calf scours, and cows will take longer to re-breed. Overall cow herd productivity will be reduced for not only the current year but for the next year as well.