Justin Sexten: Feeding the Foundation

Cows in snow
Cows in snow

Technology can be applied to a beef operation in a variety of ways. Most assume technology is associated with electronics, sensors and mobile devices. Others consider technology any deviation from the mantra of “This is how we always do it.” There is plenty of middle ground between learning from the past and applying some modern twists on current practice.

This time of year we turn to a relatively simple approach to improving nearly all aspects of beef production using an age old technology, feed. The simple solutions are often the best and a well thought out winter feeding or strategic supplement model provides a good example.

Some of the greatest benefits to feeding a cow herd have little to do with nutrition. Even the smallest amount of feed simplifies gathering, moving, and checking cows with the rattle of the bucket or sound of the feed truck.

Limiting the search area of the calving pasture to the feeding area provides valuable time in the short days of winter. Even if your feeding program provides sub optimal nutrition the animal handling benefits offer an instant partial payback.

When you consider the nutritional needs of a beef cow the challenge to deliver feed is often cited as an execution barrier. There are countless self-feeding solutions to the challenge of transporting supplements to the cow herd daily. For many the cost of this convenience is offset by the simplicity and labor savings.

For those making trips to check cows on occasion consider alternate day or three time a week supplementation strategies. Beef cows are equipped with rumen technology to recycle protein and “distribute” supplement nutrition over two or three days between your trips to the pasture. This allows less frequent travel while still delivering adequate nutrition.

For some smaller groups of cows the greater supplement amount from alternate day feeding provides greater feeding opportunities for young or timid cows. These cows are often the greatest risk for falling out due to poor nutrition so incremental feeding may be a good management option to minimize having to feed separate groups of young and mature cows.

Alternate day feeding is often overlooked when considering stored forages. Producers tend to plan forage feeding relative to the stage of production keeping the best forages for peak demand following calving. In most cases the key time to provide quality forage is before calving. Adequate nutrition at calving is the key metric to reproductive success.

Consider feeding quality forage and poor-quality hay on alternate days to provide supplemental nutrition using forage rather than feed. In a year with rising commodity prices and limited availability, strategically feeding forages may offer the best option to deliver supplemental nutrients using existing infrastructure and equipment.

A forage test to quantify hay quality is easily the most underused technology in beef operations. Knowing how poor your poor-quality hay allows adequate supplementation without wasting resources.

Forage testing and chute scales are good example cases where spending more may actually save money. Consider the example of guessing the weight of the animal you are about to treat for pneumonia. Without scales, on average you underdose 50% of the time, spending enough to almost treat the animal. When the variable of interest is binary (ill v. cured or open v. pregnant) almost but not enough is an expensive error.

Forage testing provides the baseline to develop supplement programs around so that when cold, wet weather rolls in you are not realizing the hay may not have been as good as you thought. Nutrition is one area where the costs are short-term but the production impacts are long term and getting close to feeding the cows enough is another expensive error.

We know cow nutrition is a key influence on her reproduction and correcting nutrient deficiencies is difficult in the short term one reason why adequate nutrition should be a consideration year-round.

The greatest reason to ensure adequate feed and forage resources is the cow’s nutrition affects multiple aspects of the calf’s life. Early in gestation it is calf muscle and organ development setting the stage for carcass merit in steers and reproductive success of prospective replacements. The last trimester when energy demands are greatest and environmental conditions are often the worst the cow needs to consume enough nutrients to gain condition, grow 75% of the calf mass and begin colostrum synthesis.

The technology available to improve the odds of success are simple and delivery options are flexible, accommodating varied operational needs. The beef producer is familiar with long production cycles. The key to success at weaning or harvest started at turnout, with genetic decisions “settled” the need to provide adequate nutrition to execute on this genetic potential has already begun.


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