by: Clifford Mitchell

Multi-tasking has been linked to job performance and, of recent times, valued as one of the intangibles workers exhibit. The ability to perform a variety of tasks makes that employee a vital member of the team. Cattlemen, by nature, have known this phenomenon as part of the daily grind for a long time. Unfortunately, most are often stretched a little too thin and have to re-evaluate what is important.

Cow/calf operators are required to manage cattle in different stages of production. At different times, producers may even have to micromanage groups within the different classes to make sure desired results are achieved from a nutritional standpoint.

“There is an increase in fetal growth during late gestation. Energy and protein requirements increase at this time,” says Dr. Jane Parish, Extension Beef cattle Specialist, Mississippi State University.

“Producers need to stay on top of the cow herd and keep them in the right condition. A lot can go wrong in the last trimester,” says Dr. Justin Rhinehart, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Tennessee.

“Pregnant cows have to maintain weight during the last trimester. You don't want them overly fat though. It's tough, but you have to walk the line and treat cattle how they respond to management,” says Steve Densmore, Circle X Land and Cattle Ltd., Bryan, Texas.

Most producers miss a valuable evaluation period for dry cows at weaning. Keep/cull decisions have been made, however; the potential earning power of the weaned calf often puts dry cows (non-lactating) on the back burner. Proper management of dry cows begins at weaning.

“Be observant. If a cow catches your eye that she might be too thin, sort her off and give her an opportunity to bounce back,” Densmore says. “You'd like that dry cow to maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5+ to 6. If you have some 4s group those cattle together. Those cattle will come back with better pasture and a little supplement.”

“Evaluate BCS at weaning and have a plan to maintain that BCS throughout her pregnancy,” Rhinehart says. “If you have the ability to have different feed groups, it makes it a lot easier to maintain dry cows efficiently.”

“You have to take care of that cow after weaning,” Parish says. “Evaluate her when she is in the pen. If she is border line BCS, supplement those poorer conditioned cattle.”

Feed groups not only match cattle with the same needs, but also help producers make the best use of available feed resources. Physiological differences in some animals must be accounted for to maintain constant BCS.

“You want to try to maintain those cows at BCS 5 or a little better during pregnancy. All her nutritional requirements are going up during the last trimester so it's very hard to play catch up,” Parish says. “Unfortunately, within some herds there are some cattle with different mature weights, so it takes some cows a lot more nutrition to change one BCS. Feed groups could be beneficial in some scenarios, if a producer has the resources.”

“Group cows together that need a little extra feed. If you see cattle on the verge of getting too thin move them to a different group so she can get what she needs,” Densmore says. “Cattle that are too thin, have to be put back in proper condition so they'll breed back. Group cattle that are like in kind and BCS, save your best grass for these cows. There are a variety of factors that cause cows to get too thin when she has a calf on her.”

Feed costs are always hounding producers. Changes in supply, speculators and other factors can have an impact on price from week to week. Home grown feed resources, such as pasture and hay, should be evaluated to create a balanced nutritional program to maintain cattle.

“In the Southeast, a lot of the forages we have available aren't lacking in protein. Usually, producers need to supplement cows with some high energy feed to maintain BCS,” Rhinehart says. “Co-product, commodity or by product feeds are available that will help keep costs down. Producers need to plan ahead and buy early.”

“I don't think you have to spend a lot of money to maintain cows. Keeping a constant BCS for dry cows is sometimes challenging, but it is a lot easier to do this than have them go up and down like a yo-yo,” Densmore says. “Yes it costs a little to maintain these cows at a BCS 5+ to 6, but you'll spend two or three times more money if they get too thin and start calving.”

“Supplementation is really important during times of poor forage quality and poor hay quality. In our area, we have had periods of dry weather which has impacted forage quality and hay availability. Make a plan to get the most out of the hay crop,” Parish says. “Economically, producers need to watch what they feed. Make sure you are getting quality protein and energy sources from that feed. Sometimes the least cost pellet doesn't get the job done. Soybean hulls or corn gluten can be great alternatives. Investigate feed prices and make some plans.”

Due to feed costs and traditional production practices, it is almost sacrilegious for some producers to give extra nutrition to dry cows. Feed costs give producers an easy out, but costs could double or triple down the line. Opportunity costs could also begin to pile up due to lost income from open cows or dead calves.

“In late gestation, all of her nutritional requirements are going up. If cows aren't in good condition, she's going to lose weight no matter what supplement you feed. She's behind and can't catch up at this point. A cow reaches peak lactation in 60 days, about the same time you are asking her to rebreed,” Parish says. “Newborn calves have a 24 hour period to get good quality colostrum and nutrition plays a big role in this. Thin cows could have increased calving difficulty, poor calf vigor and increased death loss due to poor quality colostrum.”

“It is cheaper to feed that cow in the last trimester, even if you have to buy extra feed, than if you get behind when she calves because that gets extremely expensive. A cow limited on nutrition at the end of gestation may sacrifice performance in a lot of areas,” Rhinehart says. “If she is on a declining plane of nutrition toward the end of gestation that calf is not going to be very healthy. Poor colostrum quality and low calf vigor are direct results of poor nutrition.”

“It is a lot easier to try and move these cows a little at a time when they are dry than feed her up after she calves. Get those cows that need help to better pasture and supplement them a little extra,” Densmore says. “Once she calves, everything she eats is geared toward milk production, not maintenance. She's won't breed back because she's not physically repaired. It takes a lot of time and money to get her back in shape. If she's too thin she'll have a weaker than normal calf in all likelihood. You want that calf to hit the ground with some bounce in his step. ”

Ill effects may also come to producers who make life too easy on those later gestation females. Although like Sasquatch sightings, it's very rare.

“You can have those cows too fat and cause a few calving problems if you take too good care of them during the last trimester,” Densmore says. “It's a fine line, but it costs a lot more money if they get too thin.”

“There is a point if cattle are too fat, it will interfere with calving and affect reproduction,” Rhinehart says. “It would take a lot of money and extra nutrition to get cows that excessively fat.”

“Cattle have to be so obese to have adverse affects. It's not really a likely scenario for most producers,” Parish says. “A little thin and it will have a big impact. Colostrum quality and calf vigor suffer, plus you end up pulling more calves.”

Putting out mineral and making sure cows are at the adequate level of consumption is status quo for most producers. Again, traditional production practices or the fact the neighbor does it could be the main reasons producers put it out. Matching minerals with the season and forage type is pretty important to the overall nutrition program. It is just another step in the process that will benefit expecting mommas.

“Producers need to think about a mineral that will match the forages ahead of time. This is a good management practice,” Parish says. “Sometimes these cows will need high magnesium mineral for a period of time to avoid grass tetany, in late gestation or not long after they calve.”

“A good mineral program is extremely important to the health of that fetus. During the last trimester proper mineral could help passed immunity. It will also shorten the post partum recovery period,” Rhinehart says. “It is important for producers to change components of that mineral program to match the seasons. In our area, high magnesium mineral is very important in the spring of the year.”

“A balanced mineral program is very important. You have to change your mineral according to season and make sure you can meet their requirements in an economic manner,” Densmore says. “There are people available that will consult with you to develop a mineral program that you can live with financially. Proper mineral supplementation will help in the long run.”

Weather and available forage supply often play a role in properly conditioning late gestation females. Cold or muddy conditions can sometimes rob these cows of vital nutrients and slim down that BCS to an undesirable level.

“You have to keep cattle moving forward during tougher times. Cattle that are late gestation or right on calving have to eat more during cold, damp weather to replenish their body and stay warm,” Densmore says. “You have to be practical, but I'll watch the weather and maybe put out a little more feed for those cows if a bad stretch is coming. I am just trying to stack things in their favor. Cows usually are ready for it and do not waste the extra feed when weather conditions change.”

“During periods of cold weather cattle need more energy to stay warm. When we add some moisture, we need to increase energy requirements that much more,” Parish says. “A lot of our genetics are geared toward heat tolerance. At least we can provide them with the right nutrition when it gets cold.”

“I am always concerned when producers are maintaining those cattle right at a BCS of 5,” Rhinehart says. “If the weather breaks hard and they back up just a little, they'll fall out of that desirable category and it costs money to bring them back.”

Properly maintained dry cows are another crown jewel of the cattle empire. Keeping a close eye on its subjects, like the emperors of old, could bring riches in the form of healthy calves and a sound bottom line.

Quality control is where multitasking comes in for the cow/calf operator. Making sure each class of livestock is properly cared for is the big picture and sometimes requires many irons in the fire. However, there is an advantage, at certain times of the year, for those who say “I try to concentrate on one thing at a time and do it well.”

“It takes diligence to maintain cattle in the proper condition throughout the year. Get cows to a BCS of 5+ earlier in the non lactating period. This provides an insurance policy for things like dry or cold weather,” Rhinehart says. “Late gestation has a lot of impact on the future of that calf. We have to give cattle the ability to express their genetics.”

“It takes a lot of time to develop a breeding program. It doesn't cost a lot to make sure the herd is properly maintained,” Parish says. “If we have her in the right condition when she calves, it is the best possible circumstance for everything to work out. She'll have high quality colostrum and odds are the calf is going to be healthy. Nutrition plays the biggest part in all of these success stories at this point.”

“It is hard to keep that consistent BCS. Cows can slip and go downhill faster than you think. That slip in BCS should change your way of action,” Densmore says. “Know your cow herd and observe how they respond to different management. If you don't know your cows, you're already fighting a losing battle.”


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