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A feed strategy to help compensate for poor pastures

It’s a hot dry summer out there in many places — any grass just isn’t doing it

Under hot and dry conditions this is a situation of pasture being depleted with no supplement food in sight.

Western Canada is having one of the hottest and driest summers in 30 years. It might not be the widespread drought of the past, but this year’s pastures are either simply nonexistent or filled with nutritionally hollow grass. As a result, cattle performance is likely to be compromised now and in months ahead with a loss of body condition and immunity against disease. Meanwhile, nursing cows have likely dried up, contributing to poor weaning weight of their calves in the fall. To reduce such a terrible impact of a hot dry summer, many people should implement my five-star feed strategy in their cow herds.

Success of this plan becomes a serious matter of providing supplemental nutrition to cows and calves: energy, protein, minerals and vitamins lacking in dried-out pastures. It could be a means to reduce the amount of essential nutrients required by the average beef cow and her calf to the point where they can be matched with available forage and other feeds.

Consider my five-star feed strategy for beef cattle now and after a hot dry summer:

The five-star strategy

  1. Assess body condition and nutrient needs of all beef animals. Body condition score (BCS) gives us a relative score for each cow (and calf) of her level of body fat at any particular time and therefore is a good snapshot of her current nutritional status. It is based upon a scale of one to nine (one = thin and nine = obese) in which mature cow should maintain a BCS of 5.5-6.0 for most of the summer and into the fall. Their spring-calves — both steers and replacement heifers — should also not deviate too much from these pivotal-points.
  2. In late August, those cows that calved out in the spring and bred only a few months back puts them in a modest stage of nutrition in which they need to consume about 25-30 lbs. of grass that consists of 52-55 per cent TDN and about nine to 10 per cent protein. In turn, their market calves (including replacement heifers) should be growing at an optimum rate that maximizes weaning weights by autumn. Their entire dietary requirements should be about 68-70 per cent TDN and about 13-14 per cent protein.
  3. Supplement dried forage when necessary. Throughout the summer, I driven by many burnt or overgrazed pastures where cattle have virtually no grass to eat. I hoped that whoever owned these cattle was supplementing hay bales. In these cases, for every bale of precious hay supplemented, one bale of hay for the upcoming fall/winter forage inventory should be accounted.For demonstration purposes: In a 200-cow herd, if I estimated if one-third of the pasture was supplemented in hay bales (one bale = 700 kg) until the end of October (90 days), the producer would need to feed approximately 180 bales of fair-quality hay. Given a dry year, this extra forage inventory might be purchased forage. • Creep feed spring calves. Creep feeds tend to bridge the nutritional deficit created between the loss of natural milk production by the cow herd on poor pastures, and still allows good overall performance for calves that are weaned and sold in the fall. Most university field data demonstrate that creep-fed nursing calves raised upon even a limited plane of summer forage nutrition can potentially maintain a daily bodyweight gain of about 1.8-2.5 lb./head/day by which 30-60 lbs. of this gain can be traced back to creep feeding.Such optimum creep-feeding performance is based largely upon its inherent feed efficiency consumed and utilized by the beef calf. For example, creep-feeding calves grazing fair- to medium-quality pastures yields a creep feed efficiency of about eight to nine lbs. of feed per lb. of gain compared to creep rations provided on drought-stricken pastures of about six to seven per lb. of gain.
  4. Feed cattle lick blocks on pasture. They supplement protein, mineral and vitamins to grazing beef cattle when pasture grasses are deficient in such essential nutrients. During a hot, dry summer, I often recommend a low-moisture molasses 20 or 30 per cent protein cattle lick block that carries a forage compliment of essential macrominerals, trace minerals and vitamins.Such low-moisture molasses blocks are also hydroscopic (absorbs moisture), which allows only the surface to become tacky, while the rest of the block remains hard. This former characteristic limit cattle intake to about 0.50 -0.75 lbs. per head per day, because cattle can only lick and consume the soft surface. Of the many types of commercial blocks available, low-moisture cattle blocks tend to be best at being a pasture management tool to move cattle around different areas of stressed pastures.
  5. Provide a balanced mineral/vitamin program. Most dried-out pastures and even supplemental forages contain very low levels of essential trace minerals and vitamins. They might also contain antagonist elements that bind existing nutrients in the diet or upon ingestion by beef cows. For example, a test of many Western pastures contains grasses with a high molybdenum content, which has been proven to lead to copper deficiencies in cattle.

That is why I recommend producers feed a high-quality cattle mineral that not only contain high levels of complimentary calcium and phosphorous to dried-out pastures, but also contain optimum trace minerals in their more “bio-available” forms (better known as “chelates”) as well as high levels of vitamins A, D and E.

Implementing my five-star feed strategy now and after a challenging summer should help reverse some poor pasture conditions for grazing beef cattle.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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