By: Robin Salverson, Cow/Calf Field Specialist, SDSU Extension
The term "fetal programming" is used to describe a relatively new concept in the livestock industry indicating that the nutrient status of gestating cows may have various long-term implications on offspring. The concept was first hypothesized in humans during the Dutch famine of 1944. Mother’s that were undernourished during pregnancy gave birth to children that had a higher risk of disease and negative effects on long term development and growth.
Dr. Rick Funston has been working in the area of beef cattle fetal programming at the University of Nebraska focusing on proper management of cow nutrition during late gestation to improve heifer progeny. He presented some of his findings at the Range Beef Cow Symposium in Rapid City in early December.
Two studies conducted at the University of Nebraska by Funston et al. (2010b) and Martin et al. (2007) reported on cows that were either supplemented or not supplemented during the last third of gestation. During Martin’s study, cows grazed dormant Sandhills range and received either no supplement or a 42% CP cake three times per week at approximately 1 lb/hd/day. Calf birth weights were not different between supplemented and non-supplemented cows; however, heifer calves born to supplemented cows had a heavier adjusted 205-day weight, pre-breeding weight, weight at pregnancy diagnosis, and higher pregnancy rate (Table 1). In addition, the proportion of heifers calving in the first 21 days of the calving season was 28% higher in heifer progeny from supplemented cows compared to progeny from non-supplemented cows.
Funston found similar results on the same cow herd fed 28% distillers-based supplement three times week (1 lb/hd/day) and grazing either dormant Sandhills range or corn crop residue. Unlike Martin, Funston reported an increase in calf weaning weights from supplemented cows. Heifer progeny from supplemented cows reached puberty earlier and tended to have a higher pregnancy rate compared to heifer progeny from non-supplemented cows (Table 1). Results from these studies suggest the idea that cow nutrition during late gestation does affect the overall performance of heifer progeny.
Fetal programming is not limited to heifer progeny performance. Research has been conducted in the areas of muscle development, feedlot performance and carcass quality. Early research indicated that nutrition during early gestation is critical for proper placenta development for the transfer of nutrients from the cow to the fetus.
More research to understand the physiological pathway of placental and fetal programming is needed. However, what is understood is that maternal cow nutrition during gestation does affect the offspring’s performance and health. More information can be found in the 2013 Range Beef Cow Symposium proceedings.