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The Cattle Business - Cow Nutrition Economics

Livestock Update, December 2001

Bill R. McKinnon, Extension Animal Scientist, Marketing, VA Tech

The dry autumn continues to keep pressure on the planned feeding programs of many cow/calf operations. Some areas of the state have had little or no significant rainfall since August. Virginia's cow/calf operations tend to depend on normally good grazing conditions into the fall. Spring calving operations typically expect their cows to add one to two body condition scores on good fall grass after the calves are weaned. The area's fall calving herds depend on late pastures to support adequate milk production to get calves off to a good start.

With little or no forage growth since September, cattle operations are making adjustments to their feeding plans. Normal fall grazing has quickly disappeared. The lack of rainfall has limited the production on stockpiled fescue boundaries. Some operations have already begun hay feeding up to two months ahead of their normal schedules.

With four to five months of supplemental feeding ahead for most herds, it would serve most operators well to plot a new course to carry herds until next April. The effective manager knows the importance of planning a feeding program that does more than just "getting cows through the winter."

For fall calving herds, adequate nutrition means feeding at a level that supports sufficient milk production for calf growth and preventing excessive weight loss in the cows. An average milking beef cow's nutritional requirements during the first two months after calving increase by 15% for energy and 32% for protein compared to late gestation. In normal years, fall pastures and stockpiled fescue would have easily provided that level of nutrition.

With the majority of the state's cow herds being spring calving, the tendency to "rough 'em through" until spring grass must be avoided. In recent years, the industry has realized the importance of having cows in good flesh condition at calving time. Research has demonstrated that mature cows in body condition score less than 5 are much slower to return to a normal estrous cycle and rebreed than cows in good condition.

If a cow is going to maintain a 365 calving cycle, she has only 80 days from the time she calves to become pregnant again. One of the best measures of the effectiveness of a herd's nutrition program is the percentage of the cows that calve within the first 21days (one estrous cycle) of a restricted calving season. A good and reasonable target for most herds would be to have 65-70% of their cows to calve within the first 21 days. If other reproductive factors were under control such as bull power, reproductive diseases, etc., the nutritional status of the cow at calving will drive how early she begins cycling and rebreeds after calving; hence, how early she calves the following calving season. If the cows within a well fed herd drop calves within a calving distribution of 65%, 25%, and 10% within each of the first three 21 day periods, those older calves will be nearly 20 pounds heavier at weaning than calves born in a calving distribution of 40%, 40%, and 15%. Additionally, cows in good body condition that calve near the end of the calving season have a much better chance of rebreeding during a restricted calving season. In most Virginia situations, the most limiting nutrient for cow herds will be energy. Unless our cool season grasses were harvested for hay at an extremely mature state, they generally have protein levels sufficient to maintain a dry beef cow. Either second cutting grass hays or early harvested first cuttings should be reserved to feed to cows after they calve. This will be a year that forage testing hay supplies can be extremely useful in planning a logical herd winter feeding program.

Operations short on hay and forage supplies should explore the potential of alternative feed sources to provide energy to the herd. Feeds such as shelled corn, corn gluten feed, soyhulls are relatively high in energy and typically supply a pound of energy cheaper than buying and hauling hay. Corn gluten feed at $110 per ton will supply energy to cows cheaper than grass hay at $70 per ton. Many Virginia operations have long used an 80/20 mix of broiler litter/corn to stretch hay supplies. Saving a few dollars this year by "roughing 'em through" may be penny wise and pound foolish in the long run.

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