Producers are all too familiar with the daily realities behind the trend-lines that chart input costs. Many are finding cash flow, as well as net returns, influencing their CattleSense: Still Impossiblepurchasing decisions. But even with tight budgets and narrow margins, some basic purchases and practices continue to be sound investments. That includes strategic supplementation of forage-based diets. As the old saying goes, you can’t starve profit out of a cow.

Typically, we have three primary goals for the supplementation program: enhance utilization of the available forage, ensure an adequate plane of nutrition to support ongoing production and reproduction, and achieve these economically. The underlying reasons for making this investment in the feeding program are based on the roles nutrition plays in growth, milk production, reproductive efficiency, and immune function. Payback is expected in several areas, over an extended period. More specifically, when cows are being maintained on forages that lack required nutrients, appropriate supplementation can yield:

CURRENT PRODUCTION YEAR
-- Heavier calves at weaning;
-- Better breed-back;
-- Earlier breed-back;
-- Healthier animals.

SUBSEQUENT PRODUCTION YEAR
-- Older (heavier) calves at weaning;
-- More uniform (valuable) calves at weaning;
-- More efficient use of resources;
-- Healthier animals.

ONGOING
-- Continued earlier rebreeding.

Of course, if we want to evaluate supplementation strategies in the context of return on investment, more specific values are required. There is a significant body of research (some of which I have cited in earlier CattleSense articles) that can directly tie brood cow nutrition, visually represented by body condition, to all these production measures. In order to place a dollar value on these responses, useful guidelines might include:

WEANING WEIGHTS
-- Each day of age (determined by conception date, which is driven by cow BCS) is worth 2 to 2.5 lb of weaning weight.
-- The number one driver of calf gains is milk production (potentially limited by inadequate nutrition).

UNIFORMITY
-- When uneven groups of calves (typically the result of a stretched out breeding season) are sorted into small lots, discounts can be as high as $7.00/cwt.
-- Research shows up to $2.50/cwt discounts for uneven vs. even lots of calves that have not been sorted.
-- Nutritional needs change dramatically as cows move from mid-gestation to early lactation. If limited nutrition causes delayed breeding for part of a herd, it becomes difficult to effectively or efficiently meet the individual needs of cows with such diverse requirements. The result is either underfeeding early calvers (creating future problems) or overfeeding late-calving cows (and increasing costs).

OPEN COWS
-- If weaned calves are worth $500, a 1% change in pregnancy rate is the equivalent of $5 per every calf in the herd.
-- Recent analyses show that average carrying costs are $400-$500 per head; that investment becomes nothing but an expense when there is no calf to sell.

HEALTH ISSUES
-- Illness and stress have been shown to negatively impact performance throughout life, beginning with incidents affecting a dam during pregnancy.
-- Costs include direct treatment costs, reduced performance, AND reduced sale value.

The basic principles are the same with stocker cattle. Supplementation should represent an investment in improved utilization of “fixed” inputs -- animals and forage. Specific supplement programs need to be evaluated by their ability to return more than they cost the enterprise. Depending on how an operation is structured, this value may best be expressed in terms of gain per head, gain per acre, or feed cost per pound of gain.

When budgets are tight, we naturally look for ways to cut costs. But when it comes to cowherd nutrition, the performance “costs” of inadequate supplementation outweigh the short-term savings in feed purchases. It is still impossible to make money with a cow without spending…no, investing… some on her first.

Source: Dr. Cathy Bandyk