Not Your Momma’s Cows

By : Jill J. Dunkel


As Cattle Have Changed, Are Your Management Practices Changing, Too?


Thumb through some old livestock magazines and you’ll likely grin. Photos of cattle from the 1940s prove the industry has changed significantly. Short, stubby legged cattle have evolved to larger, bigger framed individuals that have recently  developed into cattle with even heavier carcasses on the same frame size. Genetics and technologies to select for particular traits have delivered finished cattle that our 1940s cattleman would shake his head in amazement.

But have our management techniques changed with the times as well? Dr. Jeff Heldt and Dr. Chance Farmer, both beef technical service managers for Micronutrients, ask the question if today’s practices are keeping up with the nutritional needs of today’s cattle.

“Genetic trends are on an upward increase,” said Heldt. “If you look at the 2018 University of Nebraska Beef Report and a 2000 report, dry matter intake hasn’t really changed. Average daily gain has gone up a little, but live weight increased 200 pounds. Carcass weight has seen a 150-200 pound increase as a result of improved genetics and more days on feed.”

Coupled with that, Heldt  says feed yard sickness rates have not changed much, despite new medicine and technologies. In fact, feedlot death loss has actually increased.

“Why is that? Is it nutrition? Are today’s cattle so ramped up genetically to perform that we’ve failed to keep up with them nutritionally? Are we supplying enough trace minerals and macro minerals to support their genetic makeup and potential?” Heldt asked.

The fact is today’s cattle are considerably different than those from 30, 20 and even 5 years ago. However, Farmer said it’s not necessarily related to frame size.

“Cow size has exploded, and not necessarily from a frame score situation. We are packing way more animal in the same frame. Because of that, maintenance requirements have gone way up,  more than people would like to admit,” he said.

Heavier cattle require extra nutrition – energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Farmer said in his 15 years as a field consultant, many people didn’t anticipate the additional nutrients they should put into those cows. However, herds that did a good job taking care of cows while pregnant by far had less health problems with their cattle in the preconditioning and feed yard phases.

His conclusion: meeting the true nutritional needs of the cows can impact calf health all the way through the feeding phase.

“It was remarkable. In my years of observation, I say some of our health issues with today’s cattle start back at the ranch,” said Farmer. “We are feeding 1,400 pound cows today like we fed 1,200  pound cows years ago.”

Understanding fetal programming, and the fact that meeting the nutritional needs of the cow and fetus can lead to healthier cattle years later in the feed yard could be the key, Heldt and Farmer said.

Ranchers are selecting bulls and replacement heifers with great genetic potential, said Farmer. But they must realize that means an increase in maintenance  requirements.

“We have to accept that with the increase in genetic potential, we’ve got to take care of those cows. We’ve got the technologies out there from a nutritional standpoint to help a guy meet those requirements. But it may be at a greater input cost. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s just being more efficient, but it’s a change of mindset,” said Farmer. “You just can’t keep kicking the same can down the road.”

Heldt said there are things a ranch and can do that would still keep a budget in check. He suggested looking to get the “best bang for your buck.”

“The timing of when people do various things should be evaluated,” Farmer explained. “No April, July or October is exactly the same. There are years when supplemental nutrients need to be  provided in a time frame you traditionally wouldn’t because of drought, early frost, or whatever the situation. People have a preconceived notion that they will start feeding at a certain time of year, but you might be way better off feeding a month earlier, with less later because of how the forage shapes up.”

Supplementing cattle based on forage quality and cow  requirements instead of the calendar is key.

“There are more efficient ways to provide supplemental nutrients at more advantageous times. No one year is exactly like the next,” he said.

From a mineral perspective, not keeping quality mineral out year round doesn’t make sense, said Heldt. “It’s a really small portion of the overall ranch budget for 3 to 4 ounces a day of something that can have a huge benefit in ensuring optimal status for the cow to use how she needs it (health, reproduction, growth, etc). It’s not that costly and will really help the cattle.”

He said it comes back to how much I can spend, and when do I need to spend it.

“Be creative and understand when the key issue times are, like fetal development and rebreeding. If I need to skip for a few months due to the budget, be wise when and how you do that, and make sure you are using highly available, low rumen reactive mineral sources,” Heldt said.

Farmer also said ranchers should use due diligence when selecting breeding stock. “Understand EPDs. That doesn’t mean you need to buy the highest-priced bull or one with the best EPDs. The ramifications on the efficiency side may not work in your program.”

If you are breeding for replacements, maybe consider other indexes, he said.

“EPDs are great tools, and we are further advanced than ever. But a better understanding of how to use them is important. And understand how you are changing your herd with those genetics.”

Genetics have changed, and Heldt and Farmer said to ask yourself if you have changed your program. It shouldn’t be the same program from 20 years ago, they said.

“As you improve your herd, if you select for bigger cattle, you’ve got to be ready to improve your nutrition, and understand the implications of that,” Farmer said. “What you’re selecting for now are decisions that will affect you for 10 to 15 years down the road.”

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