Benefits of Hiring a Nutritionist

By : Tara L. Felix, Beef Extension Specialist


“Hey Doc, will you throw together a diet for me?” This is one of the most common questions that I have encountered during my stint as the Extension Beef Specialist for Penn State. And, of course, I have a PhD in beef cattle nutrition. I have studied the topic for over 12 years. I could “throw” together a diet. So, why when I get this question do I tend to refer the folks asking to hire a nutritionist? Is it because I am in cahoots with the nutrition companies and get a kickback if they hire a nutritionist? No! Is it because I just do not like working directly with beef producers? Absolutely not! That is one of the things I love most about my job. The issue is much more than any of that.

When I first began my graduate studies, I worked with a set of sheep that my advisor dubbed as “looking for a way to die”. Despite my countless hours poring over the rations for these lambs and checking on them at all hours of the day, there was just something off. In the first week I lost 10 of those lambs. This was a difficult experience for the young student that I was because a) I did not want to lose these animals or see them suffer, and b) I hated to fail at anything! My advisor was not a cruel, heartless man either. He used what was happening to teach me a lesson. The lesson was this: I can do absolutely everything right on paper, but what happens in the biological system may be very different!

You see, when I formulate a diet for cattle I focus on their requirements. I often put together a fairly simple diet of 4 ingredients because I am a simple person. One of my go-to diets for cattle in feedlots is about 63% cracked corn, 20% corn silage, 15% dried distillers grains with solubles, and 2% vitamin/mineral supplement on a DM basis. Is there something magical about this diet? Is it a secret that I’m trying to keep? Absolutely not. But, it is what has worked for me, in systems I have controlled.

Good enough for me is not good enough for everybody. When I feed this diet, there are a number of things that I evaluate prior to starting it. I ask myself a series of questions. What is actually in my ingredients? Do I have a recent corn silage analysis? Have I evaluated the particle size of my corn silage? Will it provide enough fiber to the rumen in its current state if I only include 20%? Do my distillers grains have too much sulfur? Is the mineral supplement I have chosen low in phosphorus and, thus, fit for a feedlot diet? How many pounds will I feed? How will I transition the cattle from their current ration to this one? Etc. Etc. Etc. By asking these questions, I am completing a thorough evaluation of my biological system.

So, back to my most common call; “Hey Doc, will you throw together a diet for me?” I could put something on paper that would look swell, sure; but, until I see a system, walk through it and analyze the feeds and do these things multiple times, it is not safe for me to throw together a diet and hand it to you.

In the case of my sheep during my graduate work, I got to the bottom of the issue. On paper, everything was perfect! They should have eaten and gained perfectly well. However, even though I was formulating the diet to contain less than 10 ppm copper on paper, when I analyzed the feed it actually contained 25 ppm copper, which is a toxic level for sheep. This time, the “biological system” extended all the way back to the mill I was working with. I had to do some sleuthing to figure that out though. I had the benefit of daily observations on those lambs and a fully equipped lab at my fingertips to get to the bottom of the issue in that first week.

This is where a nutritionist comes in. You want to hire someone who covers your local area. Who is familiar with the local mills. Who analyzes your feed for you on a regular basis. Who walks among your animals more than once a year. Because it is that nutritionists’ job to ensure that the diet the computer says will meet your goals actually works in your system.

So next time we talk, instead of “Hey Doc, will you throw together a diet for me?” Ask me what I think about some of the things you have going on. Ask me to recommend a nutritionist. Ask me about options and possibilities and ideas. I will look forward to our conversation!


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