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Simple facts of why body condition is important

Get cattle in good condition before winter, and if they are there, keep them there

Areas of Western Canada have endured very dry conditions this summer, which has reduced forage availability and quality on pasture or range. Plants went dormant much earlier than normal. The lack of good quality feed will have many implications for cow-calf producers trying to wean a good-size calf and maintain high levels of reproductive performance next spring.

Some of the problems to be expected:

  • If calves were not provided with creep feed over the summer, weaning weights will be lower than in most years. This could be as much as 150 pounds per animal. A farm-made mixture of one-third peas and two-thirds of barley or oats or a mix of the two cereals works well as a creep feed.
  • If the cows have lost condition and are thin, wean the calves 30 to 60 days early. This allows the calves to be put onto a good ration to maintain good rates of gain. Nutrient requirements for a dry cow are 25 per cent lower than for a lactating cow. Having lower requirements may result in the cows gaining back the weight before the cold sets in. It is much easier for a cow to gain weight in the fall than in the cold winter months. Depending on the quality of the pasture, it may be necessary to provide supplemental feed to the cows. Putting cows into dry lot to prevent overgrazing the pasture is another option.

Long-term impact of thin cows

Simple facts of why the body condition of your cow is importantIf cows are 200 pounds lighter than normal, most of the weight loss will be fat. The loss of fat reduces the insulation an animal has to shield against the cold. Heat loss increases energy requirements, which in turn requires the animal to eat more feed. A thin animal will require an additional 1,400 pounds of hay just to stay warm over the winter. That’s an additional cost of $84 per cow when hay is valued at $120 per ton. If temperatures drop below -20 C at noon, the animal will not be able to eat enough hay to keep warm. For every 10 C drop in temperature below -20 C (at noon), an additional two pounds of grain should be fed over and above what is in the regular ration. Over a three-week cold spell, it is possible for cow weight to drop 100 pounds or more if additional grain is not fed.

Colostrum is developed six to eight weeks before calving. It is critical to have adequate nutrition especially sufficient amounts of vitamin E (300 IU/day) in the ration. The vast majority of vitamin E is passed on the calf through the colostrum but not through the milk. Thin cows cannot produce as much colostrum as an animal in good condition. Quality of the colostrum is also compromised. This can result in calves not receiving adequate amount of vitamin E or antibodies. Without these components calves won’t have a strong enough immune system to combat illness at birth and for the first few months of life.

Milk production in a cow peaks at about eight weeks after calving. Maximum feed intake occurs 12 weeks after calving. It is difficult for the cow to eat sufficient feed (particularly a straight hay diet) in early lactation to receive adequate nutrition post-calving, causing peak lactation to be depressed. This loss of milk production continues throughout the entire lactation. If the energy supply is deficient, a cow can mobilize up to one pound of fat per day to offset the lack of energy to maximize milk production. It is almost impossible to have cows gain weight after calving.

Slower to breed back

Cows that drop weight after calving can take 40 to 60 days longer to start cycling compared to those that maintain their weight. First-service conception rates are also 20 to 25 per cent lower for thin cows compared to cows in good shape. Having cows deliver a calf one cycle late (21 days after the start of the calving season) can result in a calf weaning weight that could be 42 pounds lighter. At current prices, that is roughly $80 per head loss in income. It is difficult to get cows to move up in the calving profile. If the cow is late one year, it is probable that the same problem will occur the next year.

First-calf heifers typically have the highest open rate of any breeding group on the farm or ranch when they are trying to conceive their second calf. These animals are only 85 per cent of mature body weight when they calve out the first time. They are expected to provide milk to their calf, increase their own body weight and to become pregnant. Feeding the bred heifers separate from the main cow herd providing them with a higher quality ration prior to first calving improves the probability of them becoming pregnant the second time. If possible, continue to feed the second-calf heifers separate from the main cow herd as well.

Feed testing and balancing rations this year is very important especially with the use of non-traditional forages or when using straw-based rations. If necessary, feed straw based rations with grain prior to calving and save the good hay for after calving. There are big differences in what is required for mineral and vitamin supplementation when using straw, slough hay or byproduct feeds such as wheat distillers’ grains with solubles. The use of an ionophore such as Rumensin or Bovatec improves digestive efficiency by six to seven per cent and is a good investment when feeding high-fibre diets.

If help is needed to take samples, talk to the provincial beef specialist, feed company salesperson, veterinarian or private consultant. Obtain advice from a nutritionist to balance rations to prevent problems from occurring. This winter’s feeding program could impact herd productivity and profitability for many years in the future.

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