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Beef Today: Cattle Nutrition

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Ruminant nutritionists provide information on beef cattle nutrition-related topics.

More Cows too Early In the Season

Mar 15, 2013

By Dan Larson, Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc.

As we move toward the spring breeding season, reflect on last fall’s preg check. If you found open cows or if the cows bred later than ideal, there are strategies to improve pregnancy rates without spending large sums of money. The most common barriers to improvement are nutrition and management.

In the current market environment, improving conception rates is exceptionally important. Calves born from cows bred earlier in the season net more value than those born later. Based on today’s calf prices, the added value for calves born in the fi rst versus the second and third cycles is $48 and $120, respectively. Simply moving from the third cycle to the
second cycle increases calf value by $72 per head. The advantage to heifer calves born in the fi rst cycle is carried through to their own reproductive success and progeny value.

Research from Texas A&M University shows heifers that calve in the fi rst cycle as 2-year-olds have a lifetime return on investment of 10% or more compared with those that initially calve in the second cycle. In essence, an 8- or 9-year-old cow that calves in the fi rst cycle each year profi ts the equivalent of one and a half to two extra calves in same period that
cow calves in the second cycle. So, if an operation can successfully shift the herd to calving in the fi rst cycle, it will lead to more profi tability in the fi rst year and likely each subsequent year.

Critical challenges. Nutrition is key to improving fi rst-service conception rates. Energy and protein are essential to breeding success. We often focus on protein requirements, but may overlook energy. Energy needs of a lactating beef cow at breeding time is infl uenced by age, milking ability and body condition score (BCS). A lactating beef cow in a BCS 6 requires 0.60 Mcal/lb. of net energy for maintenance, or about 17 lb of total digestible nutrients (TDN) per day. In order to properly use energy, protein needs must also be met.

Protein in a lactating beef cow should be approximately 10.5% to 11%. Many hay sources will meet both energy and protein requirements. However, when poor-quality hay or crop residues are used, supplemental sources of energy and protein such as corn co-products are excellent replacements. This year, many cows may be bred in confi nement or semi-confi nement settings until suffi cient pasture regrowth. Regardless of where breeding occurs, the transition from winter feeding to breeding nutrition needs to be well-planned.

Occasionally, cows moving from a drylot to spring pasture experience a reduction in nutrient quality, especially in a drought situation where grass is in short supply. Regardless of the
cause, a negative energy balance can halt cyclic activity, reducing early conception, especially fi rst service conception. Producers who balance a diet to closely match grass resources or supplementing poor quality pasture will improve early conception rates. Early spring pasture energy content may be as high as 0.80 Mcal/lb. with 18% crude protein.

Work with your nutritionist to develop a ration system to make the transition from winter feeding to spring pasture as smooth as possible. Doing so will avoid the nutritional shock that can accompany a dramatic ration change and the potential embryonic death.

DAN LARSON is a ruminant nutritionist at Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc. His experience in both cow–calf and feedlot cattle operations offers a unique perspective on the beef industry.

Micronutrients Early in Life Yield at the Feedyard

Jan 10, 2013

By Dan Larson and Jeremy Martin, cattle nutritionists


As the value of feeder and finished cattle climbs, production risk increases as well. Therefore, as cattle producers and nutritionists, we need to search for strategies that can create
improvements in feed efficiency.

Micronutrients are a class of feedstuffs fed at very small amounts that are essential to basic body functions. Since they are fed at such low levels, micronutrients are typically subject to
antagonism by other nutrients, which may reduce their efficacy or restrict them entirely. When bound to an organic molecule such as an amino acid or an organic acid, micronutrients are less subject to antagonism and may be more available to the animal. This is accomplished by a biochemical process known as chelation.

Necessary for growth. The strategic, targeted use of chelated trace minerals in cowherds is gaining popularity in many areas, backed by a variety of research data. Micronutrients include zinc, cobalt, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium and iodine. Zinc, cobalt, copper and iodine can improve foot quality and growth performance.

Chromium may improve feed intake and energy utilization, especially in newly received feedlot cattle. Zinc, copper and manganese are the trace minerals most likely to benefit cowherd reproduction if supplied in the chelated form.

Numerous reports show that feeding chelated trace minerals during prebreeding positively impacts reproductive parameters, resulting in quicker return to ovarian activity after calving, improved AI conception rate and improved pregnancy rate. Our own experience indicates it is possible to produce substantially more calves early in the breeding season, with up to 20% more cows calving first cycle in some herds.

The most critical time for making changes to your mineral program is from 60 days prior to the breeding season to the midpoint of the breeding season. During this time frame, we expect the combination of an ionophore and a high level of chelated trace minerals to increase mineral cost by approximately $3 to $6 per head annually over the cost of a mineral with no ionophore or chelated trace minerals. Other benefits at this stage include improved calf health and immune response.

Receive and feed. Micronutrients are essential to calves’ health. Zinc and copper amino acid chelates have been shown to improve immune function and response to vaccinations compared to inorganic supplements. When organic trace minerals were fed at supranutritional levels, the incidence of respiratory disease dropped by 17.2%. Chromium propionate
may increase feed efficiency and reduce mortality rates.

In a series of studies, chromium propionate reduced the number of animals treated by more than 10% and reduced mortality by 3% to 7%. In a separate trial, increasing levels of chromium
propionate increased dry matter intake in the first 56 days on feed by more than 5%. In the finishing phase, feeding 360 mg of zinc methionine per day increased final weight by 40 lb.
compared to control groups. The cost of the zinc methionine product was 2¢ per day, or $2.80 for a 140-day feeding period; however, the return was $45 per head.

As you can see, chelated trace minerals may be more expensive, but their availability to the animal can create profit.

DAN LARSON AND JEREMY MARTIN are ruminant nutritionists at Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc. For more information, visit their website at

The Right Time to Improve a Cow’s Body Condition

Dec 14, 2012

By Luke Miller

Many cows are going into winter this year in their working clothes, and most are wearing these clothes a little thin, at best. With ranches across the country taking drastic culling measurements this past summer, it is important to get as much production as possible out of the females that remain in the herd. Although feed, forage and other inputs may be at an all-time high, it is imperative that producers remain proactive in their management decisions so that they are in a position to remain profitable in the years to come. Getting cows prepared to
go into the calving season with an optimal body condition score (BCS) is one of the most beneficial things that a cow–calf producer can do to optimize production.

Last month, Ki Fanning shared how to evaluate and score cows, and the effect BCS has on conception rates and birth weights. The most economical time to put weight on a cow is when she is in her late-second to early-third trimester of pregnancy. During this time, she is usually not lactating and her energy demands for gestation are at their lowest.

A targeted strategy. Supplementing energy based on a herd’s average BCS is probably not ideal. If at all possible, separate the thinner cows from the cows that are carrying adequate flesh. This will allow cows that need extra energy the opportunity to get it, and save money from overfeeding the more effi cient females in the herd.

Feeding a high-protein supplement such as distillers’ grains or corn gluten feed can increase the microbial effi ciency of the rumen, allowing cattle to get more energy out of low-quality forages. Offering protein based supplements every two to three days has been shown to be just as effective as feeding every day. For example, based on forage quality and cow body
condition, if you need to offer 3 lb. to 4 lb. per head per day of supplemental protein, supplying 6 lb. to 8 lb. three to four times a week should produce the same results. However, if you utilize this practice of "skip-a-day feeding," be careful not to supply more than 1% of animal body weight in grain per feeding event, as this could cause an acidic reaction.

Start calves strong. An important aspect in considering the nutrition of gestating cows is fetal development. Researchers are finding that the nutritional status of a cow during her second and third stage of pregnancy can have a huge impact on the performance and health of the calf later in life. For example, heifer calves born from supplemented cows will have higher pregnancy
rates themselves than heifers from unsupplemented mothers.

In addition, a calf’s immune system begins to develop when the cow is 150 days pregnant. I think some of the health challenges we face throughout the early stages of a calf’s life, such as pinkeye and scours, could be reduced by better cow nutrition during the winter months. Trying to play catch-up during or directly after calving can be an uphill battle. Now is the time to
concentrate not only on getting a healthy calf on the ground for this year, but also on putting the cow in a position to have reproductive success next year.

The good news is that the market outlook is extremely positive in the near future for cow–calf producers. Be sure to position your herd now to take full advantage of some of the possibilities that may lie ahead.

LUKE MILLER is a nutritionist at Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Eagle, Neb., with a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition from the University of Missouri–Columbia. A cow–calf producer himself, he enjoys helping farmers and ranchers maximize profitability.

Harvesting and Feeding Drought Stressed Forages

Aug 31, 2012
Ki Fanning
Ki Fanning Ruminant Nutritionist

This year is proving to be challenging, with the drought area more wide spread and the hay and corn crop likely to be reduced.  When combined with low ethanol prices, the result is reduced ethanol production, thus limited distillers grains supply. 

From a cattle feeding perspective, byproduct feeds are likely to be priced higher relative to corn, and availability could be a concern.  Therefore, rations changes may be necessary, and producers should look for opportunity ingredients such as buying failed corn for silage or hay, but the nitrate level may need to be considered.

Nitrate accumulation is caused by low light conditions, severe weather and/or herbicide application.  Photosynthesis converts nitrates into plant proteins so a reduction in photosynthesis will allow nitrates to build up.  Low lighting conditions such as cloudy days reduce photosynthesis and allow a greater level of nitrates to build up.  Likewise, hail will damage and strip leaves that are the main area of photosynthesis.  Cold temperatures, disease, and insects damage all reduce a plants growth and allow for a buildup of nitrates.  Herbicide applications such as 2, 4-D temporarily disrupt a plant’s normal metabolic processes.  Drought conditions may cause high nitrates but soil moisture must be present to allow the plant to take up nitrates. 

The level of nitrates vary by plant species, stage of maturity, part of the plant, and the amount of nitrogen applied as fertilizer.  Pigweed, kochia, lambsquarter, sorghum, oats, millet, and sudangrass are notorious for high nitrate levels but other plants can also accumulate nitrates to a dangerous level.  A young plant is growing fast and taking up a lot of nutrients so younger plants have a greater chance of being high in nitrates.  Nitrates are greatest at the lower part of the plant and least at the top.  A field fertilized heavier with nitrogen fertilizer has more nitrogen available to be converted to nitrates in the plant. 

To reduce nitrates harvested, raising the cutter head so that the most nitrate-dense part of the plant is left in the field.  Cut hay or silage on a sunny day starting after lunch when the plant has had time to convert accumulated nitrates to proteins.  Do not harvest forages the first two days after a rain because the rain water will stimulate plants and allow for greater nitrogen uptake. 

Manage around nitrates by ensiling the feed if possible, test for nitrate level, dilute high nitrate feeds in the ration to limit total ration nitrates, and feed a balanced diet.  The ensiling process will reduce the nitrate level by 40 to 60%.  Avoid feeding green chop silages that have been allowed to heat.  Heating, without ensilation, converts nitrates to nitrites which are more toxic.  Be certain silages have had at least 30 or 45 days to ensile completely prior to feeding.  Test the forage to determine an approximate nitrate level but remember the level is of the sample taken not the whole (i.e. there could be pockets or bales of high nitrate feeds).  Dilute the feed high in nitrates so the total diet nitrate concentration is safe for the class of animal you are feeding.  Feeding a balanced diet will maximize rumen function and allow for better conversion of nitrates by the rumen microorganisms.  This means that urea does not complicate the problem but may help if the diet is low in protein.  Likewise, the risk of nitrate poisoning is less in high-energy rations than low-energy rations. Ruminants can be acclimated to a high nitrate level by slowly increasing the total dietary nitrates, much the same way feedlot cattle are adapted to a high grain diet.  Feed your lower nitrate feeds to pregnant animals and your higher ones to growing animals. 

From past experience we know that ensiling failed corn can be an excellent feed.  In fact if done correctly, the silage will have an energy value close to that of normal corn silage.  The energy density of the forage part of a plant decreases with maturity so harvesting the failed corn as silage needs to be done at an earlier maturity than normally harvested.  The whole plant moisture content should be 65%.  This will maximize the fermentability and ensure a reduction in nitrates.  Without the grain in the forage, it is even more important to use an inoculant and cover the silage pile. 

Grazing can be an option but is higher risk because the animals do not naturally select against feeds high in nitrates.  If you have to graze forages that could be higher in nitrates be sure to not overstock the pasture or strip graze.  Supplement the animals on the pasture (more at the beginning to acclimate the animals).  Graze a week after a killing frost, if possible, to prevent additional nitrate accumulation. 

If you have more specific questions or want to design a feed budget around the available feeds you have in stock please contact one of us.  We will be glad to help.

Ki Fanning is a nutritionist at Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Eagle, Neb.

Ways to Increase the Cowherd Stocking Rate

Apr 20, 2012

By Luke Miller, nutritionist at Great Plains Livestock Consulting

High grain prices, low pastureland supply and weather challenges have many cattle producers in a tight spot. However, we have already seen a relatively high level of heifer retentions this winter. As the national cowherd begins to rebuild, where are these cattle going to go, and what are they going to eat?

Many producers are looking for an economical supplementation program to help increase stocking rates. There are a number of feeding programs that utilize self-feeders. Assume mature cows consume 8 lb. per head per day of supplemental feed. This would allow stocking rates to increase by 15% to 25%. Assuming a mix of at least 50% protein/limiter supplement valued at 30¢ per pound and 50% corn at 11¢ per pound, we have a complete feed cost of $410 per ton. If cows are limited to an intake of 8 lb. per head per day, the supplement alone would cost $1.64 per head per day.

Another supplement program to consider is a mixture of pelleted soybean hulls and pelleted corn gluten feed at a 1:1 ratio. Adding a pelleted mineral supplement to this mix at 250 lb. per ton, with the ability to control intake, would allow us to make a relatively fair comparison between two programs that utilize a self-feeder. If gluten feed costs $200 per ton, soybean hulls cost $180 per ton and the pelleted limiter costs 35¢ per pound, the complete feed would run about $254 per ton. If intake is 8 lb. per head per day, this mix adds $1.02 to the cost of running a cow for one day. Hand-feeding a similar product, but without the self-limiting technology, would cost closer to 76¢ per head per day.

Get what you pay for. Tubs are a convenient way to provide additional protein to cows and increase forage utilization. As with any product, you get what you pay for—some have a high level of mineral fortifi cation and others have little. Likewise, intake may vary from 0.5 lb. to 1 lb. per head per day. Assume we feed a molasses-based tub that weighs 200 lb., has an expected consumption of 0.6 lb. per head per day and costs $90. This product contains 20% crude protein and has a relatively high level of mineral fortifi cation. This would cost 27¢ per head per day and would supply 0.12 lb. of protein per head per day.

An alternative to tubs is handfeeding corn gluten feed and a free-choice mineral without phosphorus. On average, these minerals cost about 7½¢ per head per day. Hand-feeding 2 lb. of corn gluten feed at $200 per ton would cost another 20¢ per head per day—almost exactly the same as feeding the tub. However, because we are feeding 2 lb. of gluten
feed, which is about 20% crude protein, we’d supply about 0.4 lb. of protein per head per day, or about 330% more than the tub.

As more hay fields are plowed under, we may need to utilize wheat straw or cornstalks. Grinding these roughage products and mixing them with a wet byproduct feed can be a good option for cattle. Depending on the cost of high-energy feeds, a limit feeding program may be an alternative to help stretch hay, but will require additional management skills,
labor, equipment and bunk space.

Don’t forget other management practices that impact nutrition. Rotational grazing can nearly double grazing effi ciencies. Ionophores, such as Rumensin and Bovatec, can improve feed effi ciency by 3% to 5% at a cost of about 3¢ per head per day, to improve conception rates and reduce coccidiosis in calves.

LUKE MILLER is a nutritionist at Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Eagle, Neb., with a masters degree in ruminant nutrition from the University of Missouri–Columbia. A cow–calf producer himself, he enjoys helping farmers and ranchers maximize profitability.

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