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Late Summer Feeding Management of Cattle

Livestock Update, August 1997

Mark L. Wahlberg, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

July has provided lots of heat and not much rain. Pastures are not in good condition. In some areas producers have been feeding hay because of a shortage of pasture. Even if it does rain substantially, it will take several weeks for forages to fully recover. Producers are anticipating higher prices for cattle this fall compared to the two previous years. It is important to keep calves and yearlings gaining weight inexpensively to capture profits from sales this fall.

Here are several guidelines to follow in feeding cattle for the next few months, organized by management group.

Fall-Calving Cows are ready to have their calves weaned, if that has not already been done. The key for these cows is to get them in good shape to calve, which primarily means getting them in Body Condition Score (BCS) 5 by the time they calve. BCS should be assessed on these cows now, and the thin ones should be separated from the main group and fed to gain more weight. Because the growing fetus places additional demands on nutrition, during the last 2-3 months of pregnancy cows should be on good quality pasture and plenty of it. This forage should be at least 50% TDN and not less than 7% protein. Just before calving it increases to 56% TDN and 9% protein. This should maintain a cow's body condition through late pregnancy. If she is thin, or pasture quality or availability is low, then supplemental feeding is required. Let BCS be your guide in feeding this group of cows. Finally, a caution. Following a drought we frequently receive rains that create spring-like grass conditions that can cause grass tetany. Make sure your fall calvers are offered a palatable complete mineral that contains at least 10% Magnesium to prevent losses due to this condition.

Spring-Calving Cows are now nursing calves which are several months old that should be growing quickly. Most producers will not wean these calves for another month or two. In the next section we'll discuss the calf, but for now let's focus on the cow. The cow's milk production is becoming less, and the calf is getting more nutrition from other sources. The heavier-milking cows are now quite thin, but that's OK at this time. We've got time to fix that later. For now the idea with the cow is keep her belly full of decent quality pasture. Feeding her is much like feeding the fall-calver before she calves. If quality or quantity is deficient she can be fed some first-cutting hay which doesn't have to be very good stuff. Her nutrient requirements are pretty low right now, so forage that is 55% TDN and 9% protein will meet her needs. Some producers wean calves early when the pastures are burned up with drought. They prefer feeding calves the supplemental feed and just roughing the cows along for a while. This makes a lot of sense and is probably the best way to use high quality supplemental feed. Once her calf is weaned the requirements for the cow drop down to 50% TDN and 7% protein. This is the time to work on improving her BCS, if need be. On good fall pasture a pregnant beef cow will easily improve one Condition Score. Other good feeds for use with the dry beef cow include crop residues such as corn stalks and soybean stover.

Spring-Born Calves are growing quickly and will rapidly respond to more nutrition. Their consumption of milk is pretty low, so their rate of gain is primarily determined by quality of forage available. Calves will grow much quicker if given a creep feed. Creep grazing of high quality forages, such as alfalfa-orchardgrass regrowth in a hay field, will boost the gains of calves very inexpensively. Grain type creep feeds are used for two reasons. When fed to promote weight gain, economics is the deciding factor. However, grain type creep feeds offered for the last 3-4 weeks prior to weaning will ease weaning stress, ease the transition to the postweaning feeding program, as well as make calves gain faster. When using grain type creep feeds remember that the efficiency of use is quite variable. If feeding a creep made of mostly corn, oats, or barley and allowing unlimited access, it takes about 10 pounds of grain to make an additional pound of weight gain. At current grain and calf prices this is unprofitable. However, when a high protein creep is fed and intake is limited, the feed:gain ratio is more like 4:1. Even though the grain costs more, the enhanced efficiency of use makes this a more profitable practice. However, the most profitable is to use high quality forages as the creep feed.

Yearling Cattle (Including Fall-Born Calves and Replacement Heifers) have reached a more mature stage of growth than the young calf. Many of these cattle will weigh over 800 pounds. Their rate of gain will greatly slow down if not provided a fairly high level of nutrition. For cattle that will be sold within the next 60 days this is an important decision. Feeding a better quality feed to get more gain must be done with low-cost feeds and with an eye to the marketplace and prices paid for different weights of cattle. Significantly lower price per pound is often found for steers over 900 pounds, and for heifers over 800 pounds. When this happens producers are paid a very low price for the next pound of weight put on. Some producers in July and August will pull out the heavier end of a group of stockers and sell them, resulting in a lower stocking rate and more forage availability for the cattle left in the pasture. Some supplemental feed may be needed to produce satisfactory gains on poor quality pastures in late summer, especially under drought conditions. By using the "fiber-friendly" feeds such as wheat middlings, corn gluten feed, brewers grains, or distillers grains as supplemental feeds to cattle the level of nutrition is brought up and the digestibility of the forage from the pasture is not reduced. Low-cost supplements are made from broiler litter and barley or corn mixtures containing 25% to 50% broiler litter. Supplemental feeds should be fed at no more than 1/2 % of body weight (4 pounds per head for cattle weighing 800 pounds).

Summary - In late summer we often find cattle with fairly high requirements for feed at a time when pasture is somewhat limited due to heat and low moisture conditions. It is a challenge to meet nutrient needs at a low cost when forage is limited. Cowherds need to be managed with some attention paid to Body Condition Score, especially the fall-calving cows. Under severe conditions producers should consider weaning spring-born calves early and feeding them well, thus lessening the nutrient demands on the cow. Supplemental feeding of grains to growing cattle should be done only if it will pay for itself in increased production and income. Creep grazing of high quality forages will be especially useful under these conditions.

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