Keep the cattle off the “sidelines” with adequate nutrition

By: Paul Davis PH.D.

Basketball season and spring-calving seasons are in full swing. On the basketball court, players may be sidelined with muscle cramps and temporarily unable to contribute to their team. Caused by dehydration and inadequate potassium, visible effort is made to prevent cramps by providing water, sports drinks or high potassium foods such as bananas. This strategy is to help guard against the loss of a player being sidelined. When the player is no longer plagued by muscle cramps, he can once again perform and contribute.

Cattle may also be sidelined from productivity when the nutritional requirements needed to perform are not met. In the beef industry, performance is often defined as weight gain, percent calf crop, and milk production measured as weaning weight. Energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and water comprise the nutritional “fuel” which drives animal performance. When nutrition is inadequate and animal requirements are not met, performance is reduced or stopped until adequate nutrition is provided. Time spent at lowered production or no production can be expensive, when inputs are used to maintain cattle that are not producing up to their potential.

Cattlemen should aim to keep cattle productive and off the “sidelines.” However, when nutritional input costs appear high, the tendency is go into cost-saving mode and subsequently provide inadequate nutrition, generally in the form of insufficient energy and minerals. However, such a strategy is not viable as animal performance will suffer. Recently, a respected animal scientist summarized this by saying, “Whether calves are bringing two dollars a pound or twenty cents a pound, the nutritional requirements of the cows don’t change.” So what is actually at risk when a cow-calf herd doesn’t receive adequate nutrition?

1 – Growth of weaned calves and first-calf cows will be decreased in a situation of insufficient energy. Calf growth as it is influenced by cow milk production is directly affected by energy content of the lactating cow’s diet. Milk is a source of calories (energy) for the growing calf prior to weaning. Cows must consume a certain amount of energy in order to produce milk at a given level. When insufficient energy is provided, milk production either drops or the cow begins to use body reserves to continue producing at a relatively consistent level.

2 – Reproductive efficiency is said to have the greatest effect on the profitability of a cow-calf operation. Nutritional status of the cow herd is directly reflected in weaning weights, calves weaned per cow exposed, and calving interval. Inadequate mineral nutrition may adversely affect pregnancy rates in cows and even hamper testicular development in bulls. Often, cows that are consuming insufficient energy and may be losing weight don’t cycle and rebreed as soon after calving as producers would like. In such an instance, the cow receives “biological feedback” from her environment that says that conditions are not favorable to cycle, rebreed and take on “another mouth to feed.” When this occurs, breed back is delayed; calving interval is increased and calving seasons become longer.

3 – Immunity and overall animal health are greatly influenced by nutrition. Trace minerals such as copper, zinc and selenium play numerous roles in enzymes, co-factors and immune function. It is often said that cattle with adequate mineral status are better able to respond to vaccines and have a better chance of becoming immunized against potential diseases. Clinical illness is often a drain on amino acids, making adequate dietary protein important in preventing and fighting off illnesses.

4 – Weak, emaciated, malnourished animals may be more susceptible to injury as well as illness. Mineral nutrition has an effect on bone density, bone health, skin integrity and hoof health and hardness. Given those effects, it is fair to say that adequate nutrition for the life of the cow may afford her another year in the herd. Considering the cost of replacement heifers and the value of feeder calves, it is economically advantageous to keep cows in the herd as long as they are sound and productive.

While the above examples are not an all-encompassing list, the message is clear. Providing lacking or inadequate nutrition will have a negative impact on growth, health and reproduction of beef cattle. Conversely, adequate nutrition helps keep cattle productive and off the sidelines.     

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