The Right Time to Improve a Cow’s Body Condition

Published on: 09:52AM Jan 08, 2013

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.