Cow-pieology 101: The Straight Poop on Cattle Nutrition

February 6, 2012 05:03 AM

By Mary Hightower, University of Arkansas Extension

Cow dung, or "cow pies", as they’re more commonly known in Arkansas and other parts of the South, have quite a solid reputation. Dried, they can be used as fuel, thrown competitively like a discus, and, in some circles, cured and used as kitschy accessories, from paperweights to clocks.

But cow pies also serve another important purpose: they’re an indicator of bovine health and hay quality.

If cattle are the consumers, ranchers and producers are the dietitians. A quick look at a fresh cow pie gives the trained observer a good idea of a cow’s diet and general health, said Tom Troxel, professor and associate department head-animal science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

"’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," he said. "Many beef producers observe cow pies to determine when to start supplemental feeding or when to rotate the cattle to a different pasture.

"By observing the cow pie, one can get an indication of the quality of the animal’s diet," said Troxel.

Veteran cow producers, through years of observation, are able to tell whether cows are getting the proper nutritional requirements for their diet. All they have to do is look a pie in the face.

"The shape, size, color and texture [of a cow pie] can tell a story," he said.

HEALTHY -- Flat, dark round cow pie indicates a healthy diet.

For example, take a cow pie that is flat, round and dark in color. The even distribution and composition suggest that the cow’s nutritional requirements are met, and the hay easily digested, said Troxel.

A cow pie that is hard, stacked and showing grooves or waves—think of how lava folds into layers as it cools—suggests a poorer diet. "This is usually a sign of high fiber and low digestibility," he said. Low digestibility means less protein, which provides the healthy microorganisms cattle need to aid digestion.

Like all animals, cattle derive energy from food to acquire nutrients and stay healthy. But poorer-quality hay leads to a less-nutritious and lower-energy diet, said Troxel. Even if a cow’s diet has sufficient protein for digestion, there still may be an excess of fiber. That results in the cow deriving less energy from its diet and, therefore, a decrease in body condition.

"By observing cow pies, we can change a cow’s diet quality before its condition decreases," he said.

Judging cow pies on face value is an art, but forage testing is a science. Forage tests provide the nutrient content of hay—understood as percentages of protein, energy (known as TDN, or total digestible nutrients) and fiber. Once the forage quality is determined, it can be compared to the nutrient requirements of cattle. If the animal’s needs are greater than what’s provided in the hay, feed supplements are needed.

These supplements, also known as "least-cost supplemental feeding," generally involve grouping animals based on their nutritional requirements, forage test results and cost of feed grains, said Troxel. Grouping cattle with different requirements – such as non-lactating cows and lactating cows – can cause either overfeeding and a waste of costly supplements, or underfeeding and poor cattle performance.

"Knowing the nutrient composition of the forage allows feeding lower-quality hay to cattle with lower nutrient requirements, and feeding higher-quality hay to cattle with greater requirements," he said.

Producers can contact their county extension agent for more information on how to conduct a forage test.

2011 was one of the worst years in state history for hay production. Last year, many hay reserves were quickly used up, and the first hay cuttings were affected by cool temperatures and too much moisture. Severe-to-exceptional drought blanketed the state for months, further complicating matters.

Many cattle producers began feeding hay in August or September, as opposed to usually feeding around November. The scarcity of good-quality hay sent prices way up, and poor-quality hay was baled, sold and shipped to Arkansas. Producers scrambled to find alternative feed sources, ranging from soybean and grain sorghum residue to rice stubble, corn stalks and poultry litter.

Translation: some cows are going into winter thinner than normal, so keep an eye on those cow pies.

"Due to the poor conditions in 2011, a lot of cow pies in January and February will be indicative of these energy-deficient diets," said Troxel. Producers should keep a close eye on cattle to ensure good health.

Combining the "art" of cow-pieology with the "science" of forage testing and least-cost rations is essential to successful cattle management. "The art of beef production must be mastered before the science can be applied, because the art identifies when science should be used, changed or adapted," he said. "But one cannot exist without the other: both are needed to make wise management decisions."

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