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The Cow-Calf Manager, October 2002

Livestock Update, October 2002

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech

Drought May Cause Problems for Fall Calving Herds

The long drought has most cattlemen in the state facing some hard decisions or unusual problems this fall. Whether it's finding enough feed or water, or deciding if reducing the herd is necessary, beef producers have had to struggle in most parts of the state. However, Southwest and Northern Virginia appear to be in relatively good shape.

For fall calving herds, the extreme conditions have reduced fall grazing and decreased cow body condition. This overall poor nutritional status of the fall calving herd is unusual as these herds normally calve in the best body condition, and have more available feed after calving than herds that calve other times of the year. This year, fall calving herds will need to meet the nutritional needs of lactating cows through the breeding season with feeds other than stockpiled fescue. Hay is also limited in most operations.

Another problem that has faced fall calving herds is limited milk production by cows. In the last two dry falls, some producers have reported cows producing little or no milk at calving. Calves usually starve to death or must be bottle fed. Although Dr. Dee Whittier and I have been investigating the problem, we have been unable to pinpoint the cause. However, we suspect increased levels of toxins produced by endophyte infected fescue may be involved in the reduced milk production. Producers that had problems with the "low milk syndrome" have been able to reduce problems when they supplement the herd with feeds containing no fescue. Usually, 50 % of the diet needs to be non-fescue feeds.

Producers should first body condition score their herds as cows calve. Cows calving in body condition scores less than 5 need extra nutrition. Research indicates that cows that calve in body condition score 5 or better, and maintain their weight have better conception rates during the breeding season than cows in poor body condition. Also, cows in poor body condition that gain weight from calving to breeding have a 20% greater pregnancy rate than cows in poor body condition that do not gain weight before the breeding season. The nutritional program should be planned based on the body condition of the herd. Extremely thin cows and first calf heifers should be fed separately.

Some diets for lactating cows are indicated in the table below. These diets are designed to cause 1250 lb. cows to maintain their weight or gain weight slowly. For cows in poor body condition, the energy level of the diet must be increased. This usually means adding 2 to 3 pounds of corn to the diet. Spring calving herds can use these diets as well. Producers should consult with a County Extension Agent or nutritionist for diets specific to individual herds.

Diets for Lactating Cows - Calving through breeding
  Diet 1 Diet 2 Diet 3 Diet 4
  Pounds (As-fed)
Corn 4.5 4.5 0.0 0.0
SBM 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Fescue Hay 12.0 7.1 14.1 15
Wet Brewers Grain 60.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Poultry litter 0.0 20.7 0.0 0.0
Corn Gluten Feed 0.0 0.0 16.7 0.0
Wheat Mids 0.0 0.0 0.0 14.0
Cost/cow/day $1.32 $0.86 $1.36 $ 1.25

Proper mineral supplementation with these diets is essential. All these diets meet or exceed phosphorus requirements for lactating cows. Diets 1, 3, and 4 should be supplemented with a 50:50 mix of ground limestone and high selenium trace mineral salt. Diet 2 requires little mineral supplementation, but should be supplemented top dressed with 2 oz. of magnesium oxide daily. Diet 2 also requires supplemental selenium, but producers should work with an Extension agent to develop a supplement containing selenium at the proper concentration.

Prices of diets are listed to give rough comparisons of diet cost. Actually cost will vary with price and availability of local feedstuffs. In general, lactating cows can be fed for $0.90 to $ 1.40 per cow per day.

Spending some time developing a good nutrition program to feed cows from calving to breeding will pay dividends in higher pregnancy rates. In addition, growth rates of calves nursing these cows should improve.

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