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Old school nutrition works after calving

It doesn't have to cost a lot to maintain proper body condition

Once she calves, this cow's dietary needs will change.

Already, I know a few producers have had a couple of sleepless nights checking cows at calving. Most have told me all has gone well, because their cows came through the winter in good shape and were well-prepared for this year’s calving season.

Moving forward, they now feed their calved-out beef cows diets which contain a higher plane of nutrition than diets they fed during gestation. These post-partum diets help cows produce lots of milk for new spring calves and return cows to good reproductive performance.

Post-partum beef cows require about 60 to 62 per cent TDN (total digestible nutrients) and about 11 to 12 per cent crude protein in their diet, by the time they are milking at their highest levels (re: 10 litres per day). First-calf heifers do not eat nor milk as well as older cows, but their dietary concentrations are similar, because they need extra nutrients for growth. It’s also important to keep in mind all cows that calving February to April might use 20 to 30 per cent more dietary energy just to keep warm, which supersedes milk production and reproductive requirements.

Essential cattle minerals (and A, D and E vitamins) should also be provided in post-partum cow diets, such as calcium, phosphorus and other essential macro-minerals. They complement whatever mineral levels found in forages. Also trace mineral requirements of beef cows nearly doubles since the start of the winter season. Bio-available sources of copper, zinc, manganese, iodine, cobalt, and selenium must be fed.

Manitoba experience

With these nutrient guidelines in mind, I asked a friend who runs a 150-beef cow operation in the Interlake region of Manitoba, how he specifically feeds and manages his cow herd after they calve in mid-March.

First, he tells me his main goal after calving is to maintain the calving body condition score of cows at 2.7-3.0 (1 = thin to 5 = obese) for the next 80-90 days. It’s his foundation in order to have cows milk well, repair their reproductive tracts and almost assure cows and heifers have at least one strong heat cycle before the start of this year’s breeding season.

His subsequent post-partum feeding program is what he calls “old school nutrition.”

Back in the early December, he segregated his 1,200-1,400 lb. hay bales. Near the south side of an old barn, he stores bales of gestation hay; mostly fair-quality grass hay. Across the road in a tree-lined field, he stores lactation bales; better quality hay (1/3 alfalfa and 2/3 timothy hay) for main cows and replacement heifers after calving.

My friend rolls out the lactation bales at the rate of 30-40 lbs. of hay per cow on a daily basis. He will supplement with three to four pounds of ground barley, when the weather gets really cold. In contrast, he is a big advocate of putting out loose “breeder cattle mineral” (with organic/chelated trace minerals and fortified levels of vitamins A, D and E) at the rate of two to four ounces per head per day in tire-mounted mineral feeders along with blue cobalt-iodized salt blocks.

As a cost-conscious beef producer, he likes to budget feeding programs for his cattle. For example, this is his investment for this year’s post-calving diet:

  • 35 lbs. forage @ $40 per 1,200-lb. bale = $1.17
  • 3 lbs. of barley @ $3.75 per bushel = $0.23
  • 4 oz. of Breeder mineral @ $40 per 25-kg bag = $0.18

Total cost per head …………………………………… = $1.58

For roughly $1.60 per head per day, my friend successfully maintains the BCS of his cow herd from calving to the breeding season. His cow herd’s conception rate by mid-June has consistently been around 95 per cent in a 70-day calving/breeding season.

Several university studies have confirmed my friend’s commitment of maintaining BCS from calving to the breeding season. Case in point: a two-year Oklahoma State University study illustrates two polarized BCS situations; beef cows that were fed to maintain body condition from calving until the beginning of the breeding season averaged 94 per cent pregnant, while those that calved in similar body condition but lost nearly a full condition score were 73 per cent rebred.

Regardless of my friend’s “old school nutrition” or the latter well-run university study, a good feeding program for cows after calving comes down to meeting their essential nutrient requirements, so they milk well and are ready for the upcoming breeding season. Success of these feeding efforts is measured with this year’s growing calves and the cows getting pregnant with another new calf.

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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