By: John F. Grimes, Ohio State University Extension Beef Coordinator
Spring may have officially arrived last week but the weather in Ohio early this week gave us a reminder that winter is not going away without a fight. I am sure that every cattle producer has grown weary of battling the challenges that this winter has thrown their way. Even the most routine daily tasks around the farm have been more difficult to complete given the tough winter. The arrival of typical spring weather will hopefully allow us to quit worrying about tractors starting, water lines and waterers freezing, and keeping ears intact on baby calves.
No question this winter has been tough on producers but let's not lose sight of the plight of the brood cow. She has truly been on the "front lines" of the battle with winter. The record cold temperatures and historically high snowfalls have put significant stress on females over the past few months. This stress can certainly cause complications during the most critical time of the year for the brood cow: calving and breeding seasons.
Regardless of the weather we are experiencing, late gestation and early lactation are the periods of greatest nutritional requirements for the beef female. Hopefully the cow-calf producer has prepared for this critical time. Cows in these stages of production should be receiving the highest quality forages and feedstuffs available from the producer. While the producer may remember making high quality hay last May or June, the quality of the hay being fed may not be the quality that the producer believes they have. Unless you have performed a laboratory analysis of the forage, you may be uncertain that you are sufficiently meeting the nutritional needs of the beef cow during the most critical time of the production cycle.
How dramatic are the changes in nutritional requirements for the beef cow during late gestation and early lactation? The National Research Council's publication "Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle: Seventh Revised Edition" provides the insight to these changes. Take a look at a typical 1,300 lb. beef cow. This cow in mid-gestation has a daily requirement of 50% Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) and 7.1% Crude Protein (CP). This same cow in late gestation has a daily requirement of 54% TDN and 7.9% CP. If milk production with a 1,300 lb. cow in early lactation ranges from 15 - 25 lbs. of milk per day, the daily nutritional requirements rise to 56 - 59% TDN and 8.9 - 10.3% CP.
The typical preferred calving season for the cow-calf producer actually makes the job of meeting the cow's nutritional needs more difficult. The 2007-2008 USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System Beef Study indicated that the largest percentage of calves born by month are as follows: 1st: March, 2nd: April, 3rd: February, 4th: May, and 5th: January. The nutritional requirements of a productive cow are increasing through months with some of the toughest environmental conditions.
Numerous research studies have shown that beef cows should be in a body condition score (BCS) of 5 - 6 on a 1 - 9 scale where 1 is extremely thin and 9 is extremely fat. Cows that are a BCS of 4 or less can experience greater calving difficulty, prolonged anestrus periods, and lower conception rates. It is very difficult and expensive to gain condition on cows that are thin in late gestation or lactating. Flushing cows on high energy rations in lactation prior to breeding is beneficial but seldom can you achieve the same results as calving cows in good body condition. Managing the appropriate body condition of a beef cow is a year-round effort to balance optimum cow productivity and keeping feed costs in check.
It is important realize that as we transition from winter into spring, the nutritional needs of the typical spring calving cow are increasing. Do not assume that because pasture fields are showing the early signs of growth that relief from the stresses of winter has arrived. Early season pasture growth is lush and full of water. The cow has to consume large quantities of forage early in the grazing season just to approach meeting her daily nutritional needs. You may have to supply supplemental nutrients from high quality hay or extra energy from grains and/or by-product feeds to meet the female's needs.
An extra investment in feed at this time can pay huge dividends in the coming year. All classes of beef cattle are simply too valuable in today's market to not take steps to maximize conception rates and calving percentages.