Make sure your cows are nutritionally ready
- by Gilda V. Bryant
- photo by Lucie Wiese
Minerals are important for herd health, reproduction and efficiency during winter. However, that is only part of the picture. Extra protein and energy are vital during cold, wet weather. Producers should also be aware of forage and by-product supplementation quality, as well as body condition scores.
“The challenge with minerals is there’s just no single answer,” says Rick Rasby, PhD, PAS (Professional Animal Scientist), Beef Extension Specialist, University of Nebraska (Lincoln). “Think about minerals as part of a total diet those animals are eating.”
Rasby encourages producers to sample baled forages for moisture content, protein, energy and mineral profiles. Once a producer knows his forage quality, he can adjust the mineral package for his herd. He says, “Use the mineral as a supplement to bridge the deficiency gap in those forages that are being consumed.”
He also recommends that producers analyze samples of supplemental feed such as gin trash, cotton seed, or distiller’s grains.
Many regions with ethanol plants have distiller’s grains available for the cow/calf sector. Rasby says, “It’s an excellent feed, works well with forages, and is high in protein, energy and phosphorus as well.”
Typically low in winter forages, phosphorus is a mineral that’s vital for bone and teeth development, and metabolic, neurological and cellular functions in cattle. It’s also one of the most expensive minerals to supplement. According to Rasby, reducing or omitting phosphorus from the mineral package when feeding distillers grains can save money. Get advice from a nutritionist or beef extension specialist about adjusting nutrient values when feeding these supplemental rations.
In addition to minerals, protein and energy, utilizing body condition scores (BCS) is a management practice that cow/calf operators can implement on a regular basis. Scores range between one and nine with one being a very poor specimen and nine being obese.
Rasby adds, “Having mature cows in condition score five at calving not only has an impact on what happens at calving, but also on how quickly those cows are ready to rebreed after calving. Those first-calf heifers probably need to be in a little bit better condition, say conditioning score six.
“Cows that breed early in the breeding season are in the right nutritional status. Their calves are older at weaning and generate more dollars,” explains Rasby.
Is it right?
How can a cattleman determine if his mineral supplement and diet are on target? “Measure how they perform at calving,” replies Rasby. “Are they good mothers? Do they give enough milk? Does the calf perform well while it’s on its mother? How quickly does the cow get ready to rebreed?”
Providing minerals is crucial to the Thomas Angus Ranch outside of Baker City, Oregon. Located in a valley between two mountain ranges, and flanked by sagebrush hills, owner Rob Thomas says, “We have long, fairly hard winters.”
He provides a custom mineral mix to his spring and fall calving herds, depending on forage analysis to fine-tune the supplement package. Thomas says, “We increased levels of zinc, copper, and selenium, the three minerals we’re deficient in.”
Beginning in November when snow is on the ground, he’ll feed alfalfa and grass hay. He says, “We put up a lot of our own hay, so we feed what we put up. We test our feed to see what minerals we need.”
As a result of their efforts he reports, “We have healthier cattle, better immune response, fewer treatments and a lower death loss. We see increases in reproduction and gain and better feed utilization, which is important right now. With extremely high feed prices, we want to utilize every bit of that feed, if possible.”
Across the country, Kevin Yon raises Angus cattle in the mild winters of west central South Carolina. He provides three mineral mixes: summer, winter, and one for young growing livestock. Yon says, “Our winter mineral program doesn’t differ drastically from our summer mineral program. We include a higher level of magnesium to prevent grass tetany. If all goes well we hope to have lush grazing on a limited basis, even in December and for sure in February and March.”
His winter diet includes stockpiled forages such as Fescue or Bermuda grass. When possible, Yon likes to have rye grass or small-grain winter annuals on hand. He explains, “It could be a combination of those and sometimes we’ll use a protein or energy supplement, which could be commodity by-products, such as whole cotton seed, dried distillers grains or corn gluten.”
He analyzes feed, grains and commodity by-products, seeking advice from a nutritionist to adjust his mineral program as needed.
“It’s important to have a year-round high-quality mineral program,” Yon advises. “That’s not always the cheapest bag of mineral, but it has the high levels that are needed for cattle in your area. The cheapest bag is not always the best.”
Yon finds that his cattle have a more consistent consumption if he allows free choice at all times. He says, “Know what the consumption rate should be and monitor that. In our part of the world, a covered mineral trough is important so the mineral doesn’t get wet, cake up and the cattle don’t eat it.
“As a producer, I see the benefit of minerals.” Yon explains, “The biggest for us is reproduction, cow herd efficiency, immune response, cattle health, and growth and development. At our place we try to feed a cow as cheap as we can because 60-70 percent of our annual cost involves nutrition. We don’t see that minerals are the place to skimp.”
Thomas also recommends feeding minerals, saying, “Do it based on science. Go ahead and get a forage analysis based on what you’re feeding and do that every time you get a new batch of feed, so you know what you’re feeding and what minerals you need to add to the ration.”
Rasby says, “To be competitive, you’re really going to have to watch feed costs. How you put together feeding programs to meet your herd’s nutritional needs is going to be critical.”
To find a list of certified feed testing laboratories, check out: www.foragetesting.org.
PROTEIN AND ENERGY
“Minerals don’t do much if you’re not doing a good job of covering your water, energy, and protein needs for those cows,” advises Ken Bryan, PAS, and Ruminant Specialist with Cargill. “A balanced diet is important because you have the added stress of environmental conditions like cold, wet weather, mud and wind, which are going to increase the cow’s nutritional requirements.”
Adequate amounts of energy and protein are critical during winter conditions. “If a cow will eat twenty-four pounds of dry matter in forage, she’s going to get all the energy she needs,” Bryan explains. “If that rumen is functioning well, she’ll break down the fiber and utilize that feed. That’s your energy source.”
Protein, a much-needed nutrient in cattle diets, is composed of true protein and nonprotein nitrogen. Protein in forages will gradually decline, providing less protein as winter progresses, with a higher percentage of fiber. “The nasty thing about fiber is a high fiber, low quality forage diet will restrict intake,” Bryan says. “Now we’re going to supplement with a protein source. The nice thing is, there are options for protein supplementation.”
“There’s the old standby, cake or range cubes, protein tubs or blocks and leftovers from oil seed products such as sunflower, cotton seed, or soybean meal and distillers grains from corn. Look at the most economical way to deliver protein to the cow.”
Bryan cautions, “We’ve got to keep a minimum amount of fiber in that diet as we feed energy supplements. We’re going to cause some long- term changes in that cow’s rumen... we’ll ruin her if we feed her like a feedlot steer.”