Feeding the beef cow herd – stop wasting feed (Proceedings)


With the recent increase in prices of feedstuffs used in beef rations along with the increasing availability of by-product feeds, now is the time for veterinarians to become more involved in nutrition consultation with their beef clients.

With the recent increase in prices of feedstuffs used in beef rations along with the increasing availability of by-product feeds, now is the time for veterinarians to become more involved in nutrition consultation with their beef clients. Research by Miller and Knipe from Illinois showed that when comparing profitability of beef herds, 56.7% of the variation in profit was due to one single thing; nutrition cost/cow/year.

Nutrition goals and tips

1.) Beef cows need to fit the environment you have. We spend a lot of time and effort to make the cows we have work in the environment where we put them. If we instead ask what type of cow works for the environment we have, we will have far fewer nutritional concerns.

2. )The more the cow grazes (grass, stalks, stockpiled forage) the less $$ it costs to feed her. There has been much work done in many states on increasing grazing days. Herds that graze longer during the year tend to be more profitable. When all the expenses of making hay are analyzed, many times the producer cannot justify owning any hay equipment.

The amount of crop residue that goes to waste and is not consumed by beef cows is staggering. Adding 30 days of stalk grazing can save the average herd about $30/cow in feed cost.

3. )You can't 'starve' the profit out of a cow, but you can feed her so much that you 'starve' the profit from the operation. Herds that underfeed their cows are rarely going to have a herd that is productive enough to be profitable. The goal is to supply adequate nutrition, but not to excess or deficiency. One of my clients used the quote of "If my cows are too fat, I'm wasting my money. If my cows are too thin, I'm wasting my investment." I could not agree more.

Table 1

Weaning the calf at 160-180 days enhances fertility because:

The cow goes into winter in better flesh→ she calves in better flesh→ rebreeds more quickly. You also save money because the cow can utilize low cost forages or crop residues. The calf is also fed directly which is more economical.

4.) Inventory your feedstuffs as to quality and quantity. Test all forages every year. Testing feedstuffs and balancing rations will save an average of $25/cow/year There are many easy-to-use ration formulation programs available. This is a great value-added service for you to provide. Be sure to document savings for your herds.

5. ) It is legal to feed corn or corn and soybean co-products to beef cows. Many producers brag that their cows don't get any grain all winter long; they only get hay. Figure the cost of full feeding (free choice) hay and it is nearly always the highest cost ration there is. None of our high profit herds feed hay free choice to their cows. Adding ingredients like corn, soy hulls, corn gluten, distiller's grains or corn silage to the ration will almost always decrease the cost and will likely improve the nutrition.

6.) We are not feeding cattle. We are feeding rumen microorganisms. Make all changes slowly.

7.) Losses associated with hay storage can be staggering. The following are percent loss with various storage methods:

Barn: 2-8%

Stacked, tarped on pad: 2-8%

Off ground*: 13-17%

Net wrap, ground: 15-25%

On ground, twine: 25-35%

*Bales placed on crushed rock, pallets, tires, concrete blocks, telephone poles, etc.

Most common nutrition errors

1.) Underfeeding energy in pregnant, precalving 2 year-olds. Producers have heard for years that feeding heifer's grain before calving causes calving problems. If fact, I just read this fallacy in a newsletter from a well known breeder in Colorado. This is absolutely wrong. If we take heifers from Body Condition Score 4 to 6, calf birth weight may increase 0-7# (depending on the study), but every study shows no change in dystocia score. But as heifers go from BCS 4 to 6 the rebreeding rate in a 65 day breeding season goes from about 50% to 96%!!

2.) Overfeeding protein in the winter. Most hay will be adequate in protein and if you are feeding a corn by-product you will have no trouble meeting the cow's protein requirement. Test hay and by-products to be sure. Protein blocks and tubs have everything a consumer wants. They are convenient, they are highly advertised, the neighbor uses them and the cows love them. So, what's the problem? If your clients feed hay as a large component of their winter ration, the chance that they need additional protein is slim. The only place that protein supplementation is generally necessary is when cows graze low protein native forage during the winter. Places like Nebraska and Kansas traditionally have this type of winter forage. If your clients graze stockpiled fescue in the midwest, it is most likely that it is adequate in protein for your cows.

3.) Creep feeding for >30 days. Creep feeding is to help transition the rumen microorganisms from digesting milk and grass to hay and grain. If calves eat excessive creep feed, the production efficiency can be 8-10:1 on a feed:gain ratio.

4.) Buying fancy mineral mixes to 'solve' other nutritional or management deficiencies. Chelated minerals do not solve energy deficiency, poor BCS or make poor quality feed more digestible. If you have a mineral deficiency, solve that problem, but don't expect a new mineral mix to magically solve all management ills on a farm.

5.) Tradition dictates everything. Another quote from one of my clients was, "Never be the first to try the new, nor the last to lay aside the tried and true". When a better product or technique comes along, producers need to examine the potential benefits on their farm. In fact, they may ask you about it before they try it. If everything is done the way it was fifty years ago, you are going to have a tough time helping them improve. When I think of new technology in nutrition, I think of stockpiled grazing, testing feedstuffs for nutrient content, adjusting the mineral mixture to the season of the year and utilizing by-product feeds. You can likely think of even more.

6.) Feeding excessive nutrients to a group so that a few thin cows become adequate in BCS. Sometimes cows are "asking to leave the herd." If life is so easy on a particular farm that all the cows are always bred, my suspicion is that the cows are overfed. If a 100 cow herd with 100% pregnancy rate is compared to one with 95% and in the 100% herd each cow is overfed by $50/year; it cost the producer $5000 or $1000/cow to get those extra 5 cows bred. With profit/cow/year at $69 in 2007, your producer lost a total of $4655 by having those 5 'extra' cows bred.

7.) Full feeding hay to the cow during the winter

Research at Purdue showed the following rates of hay disappearance when cows were fed ad lib or limited amounts of hay.

Table 2

Why do we allow cows 24 hour access to hay when 4 hours gives the same result of gain with 37.2% less wastage? It makes no sense at all.

In another study at Purdue, cows were given access to hay for a prescribed period of time. For cows eating mixed hay they consumed as follows

Table 3

Nutrition 'rules of thumb'

1.) "A cow and her calf on an acre and a half" (Under ideal management conditions in Midwest – 2.5 – 3 acres/pair more likely). Are your producers utilizing their pastures correctly, overgrazing or wasting grass? Only one of the above scenarios is ideal for the cattle and the land. If your clients are not utilizing Management-intensive Grazing (MiG), they are not optimizing pounds of beef produced per acre. Assist them in finding a resource for improved pasture productivity.

2.) Corn stalk grazing – 1 acre/cow/month. Cows should enter the cornstalk field from the south gate as the combine is leaving the north gate. Stalk residue deteriorates each day after harvest. Get cows out to stalk fields early and rotate them to a new field when cows near 1 acre/month. It is ideal to have stalk fields divided into strips for more efficient use of the land. If stalk ground is much greater than can be utilized, simply turn the cows out on a large field and then move to another field to graze.

3.) Price of corn silage/ton (hauled to your farm) ≈ 9x price of corn/bushel. This is a question I have been asked many times and thought it might be of benefit to you.

4.) One Body Condition Score (BCS) ≈ 75 – 100#. This gives the producer a way to calculate body weight gain needed over a certain time. If a group of heifers are 90 days precalving and in BCS 5, you can figure that they need to gain about 125# (1.4#/day) to meet their goal of calving in BCS 6.5.

5.) Beef rations

High forage diet – process corn moderately

High grain diet – zero to minimal process of corn

When a high level of forage is fed in the diet, the forage tends to "pull" the whole kernel through the animal undigested, preventing proper chewing and breaking of the seed coat. So, in high forage rations (greater than 40%), the corn should be processed so more digestion occurs in the small intestine.

When a high level of grain is fed, corn should be left whole. About 2-3% of the corn will pass undigested to the manure. However, more corn is digested in the small intestine, less energy is lost from rumen heat and gas production and the calf has less chance of acidosis. If a high grain ration is fed, monensin should always be included in the ration and tylosin may also be cost-effective to include.

Specifics on how to start providing nutritional consultation

If you are fortunate enough to have a beef nutritionist in your practice area, find out how you can get this person "on your team". This fits very well with my overall practice philosophy that you cannot know it all and the more you surround yourself with other specialists, the better your clients will be served.

The greater likelihood is that you will not have this level of expertise in your area and you will become the major source of nutritional consultation on many of your farms or ranches.

The first requirement is to have some base knowledge of nutrition. Maybe you had some excellent nutrition classes in undergrad or veterinary school. There are also opportunities for continuing education in beef nutrition via meetings, university or independent study. You will need some amount of in-depth of education in beef nutrition before you can consult with your clients.

You can formulate rations by hand, but with many easy-to-use computer programs, this is a much more realistic option. I use the BRaNDS program from Iowa State and find it easy to use while giving accurate results. The feedlot portion of the program is made for yearling type cattle so when we have feeders that feed calves we need to make some adjustments on the amount of protein it recommends.

We have a large number of clients that now utilize by-product feeds (corn gluten, distillers grains, soyhulls, brewers grains) as a major portion of the winter cow ration and the cow ration program works very well for this effort. One client that changed from an ad lib hay ration to a three times weekly, limit fed TMR of corn stalks, wet gluten, Rumensin® and gluten balancer saved $25,000 on his winter feed cost for his 140 cow herd and sold $5000 worth of hay.

If you have interest and knowledge in beef nutrition and you are not providing this service to your clients, I strongly encourage you to do so. It can be that ideal win-win situation for your clients and your business.

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