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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, November 2002

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

Spring Calving Cows Need a Fall Tune-up

This was a tough year to be a spring calving cow in Virginia. Except for far Northern and Southwestern Virginia, most localities became short of feed by early July with many areas feeding hay by July or August. As a result, spring calving cows are entering the winter in extremely poor condition. For example, cows at the Shenandoah Valley Area Research and Extension Center are 1 to 2 body condition scores thinner than last year. Now is the time to give these cows a tune-up.

A fall tune-up for cows consists of body condition scoring, physical evaluation, pregnancy detection, culling, vaccinations and a winter nutrition program. Many of these procedures may have already been carried out at weaning time, but this article will review those procedures with emphasis on cow nutrition. The best use of management time and resources right now is to get cows in good body condition.

Body condition scoring and physical evaluation. Body condition scoring of cows is one of the most important practices a producer can use to keep the cow herd productive. Cows need to be in body condition score (BCS) 5 or 6 by calving. Spring calving cows really need to be BCS 5 by mid to late December before cold weather hits. Cows in good body condition will require less feed during the winter, and it is easier to keep cows in good body condition in January and February than to get them to gain weight. Table 1 lists the important indicators of body condition. For more information on body condition scoring consult Extension publication 400-795.

Cows should also be evaluated for feet and leg problems, bad udders, cancer eye, poor teeth (old age), and disposition. Cows with any of these problems get one strike towards culling. Cows with cancer eye that is beyond treatment or permanent mobility problems should be culled immediately.

Pregnancy detection and culling. Having a veterinarian pregnancy check your cows will give you an indication of calving date and help with culling decisions. Pregnancy detection usually costs $3-$5 per cow especially when combined with other herd health procedures. In years of short feed supplies, culling open cows may be a good choice. Definitely open cows get another strike towards culling.

Recently, we adopted the "two strike rule" for culling. Open cows automatically have one strike. If they have any of the problems mentioned above (bad legs, poor udder, sorry calf), they are automatically culled. Open cows, eight years old or older, should also be culled. Young healthy cows should be given another chance, but any cow that has been open twice in her lifetime should be culled.

Herd health. Cows should be treated for lice and grubs and vaccinated against Leptospirosis by mid-November. Consult your local veterinarian for other herd health recommendations.

Table 1. Indicators of body condition
Body Condition Scores
Reference Point 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Physically weakyes no no no no no no no no
Muscle atrophyyes yes slight no no no no no no
Outline of spine visibleyes yes Yes slight no no no no no
Outline of ribs visible all all All 3-5 1-2 0 0 0 0
Fat in brisket and flanks no no no no no some full full extreme
Outline of hip & pin bones visible yes yes yes yes yes yes slight no no
Fat udder & patchy fat around tail head no no no no no no slight yes extreme

Winter Nutrition Program. The cow herd winter nutrition program should be based on the body condition of the cows. Thin cows (BCS 4) need to gain weight and body condition by January 1. Cows in good condition, BCS 5 or better, need to maintain condition until calving.

The easiest time to put weight and condition on cows is immediately after weaning. Nutritional requirements are lowest and climatic conditions in mid to late fall favor weight gain. Certainly, stockpiled fescue is the easiest and cheapest way to put weight on cows. However, not every operation has abundant stockpiling this year. Some diets to put weight on thin cows are indicated in Table 2. Diets that will maintain cow weights are indicated in table 3.

Table 2. Diets to help dry cows gain weight
  Diet Composition (lbs. per cow per day as fed basis)
Ingredient Diet 1 Diet 2 Diet 3 Diet 4 Diet 5
Fescue Hay 19.5 18.0 10.0 5.0 5.0
Corn 6.0 0 0 12.0 5.0
Soybean meal 0.5 0 0 0 0
Corn Gluten Feed 0 7.0 16.0 0 0
Poultry litter 0 0 0 12.0 17.0
Days to gain 1 condition score 46 57 27 21 34
Cost per cow per day $1.00 $0.89 $1.04 $0.94 $0.65

Table 3. Diets to help dry cows maintain weight
Diet Composition (lbs. pr cow per day)
Ingredient Diet 1 Diet 2 Diet 3 Diet 4 Diet 5
Fescue Hay 20.0 15.0 15.0 8.0 5
Corn 4.0 0 0 5.0 4
Soybean meal 1.0 0 0.0 0  
Corn Gluten Feed 0 7.0 0 8.0  
Poultry litter 0 0 0 0 18
Soy Hulls 0 0 10.0 0  
Days to gain 1 condition score 448 261 120 150 160
Cost per cow per day $0.99 $0.99 $0.91 $0.96$.70

All these diets are relatively high in phosphorus. Mineral supplementation should consist of 2/3 high selenium trace mineral salt, 1/3 ground limestone. For diets that contain more than 5 lbs of grain, cows should be brought up on grain gradually by starting at 4 lbs of grain and increasing the grain by 1 lbs per day until the desire amount is reached.

These are example diets and prices. For proper formulation, a forage analysis is needed. Consult you county Extension agent or nutritionist for custom formulations.

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