Now is the time to start planning your winter-feeding program. Adequate nutrition is vital for both the calf and cow in terms of health and productivity. Thin cows are harder to breed back; produce less milk and wean lighter calves. However, on the flip side, it is important to supplement only what is necessary without wasting feed or money in order to remain profitable.
General Cattle Nutrition
In order to make informed decisions regarding supplements, it is necessary to understand the basics of cattle nutrition. Cattle require proper amounts of energy, protein, minerals, vitamins and water in order to thrive and achieve maximum production and efficiency.
Energy is the first limiting nutrient in a cow’s diet and represents a major portion of a cow’s needs. Energy is the “fuel” that allows a cow to function. Energy needs are typically expressed in terms of total digestible nutrients (TDN). Most of the energy needs of cattle are met through the fermentation of forages and roughages in the rumen. Other energy sources include carbohydrates (primarily supplied by grains), sugars (from sources such as molasses) and fats.
Protein is composed of amino acids, which the body uses as “building blocks” for body tissues. In ruminants, the bacteria and protozoa in the rumen actually digest forage protein and convert it into microbial protein. These microorganisms are capable of converting non-protein sources of nitrogen (NPN) such as urea, into the same microbial protein under normal conditions. Since the cow cannot differentiate between the microbial protein produced from natural forages and that produced from NPN, urea is often added as a way of economically increasing effective protein levels in supplements.
Minerals and vitamins are also essential to proper nutrition. Since mineral and vitamins levels vary in forages and feeds, always provide free choice access to a complete mineral and vitamin supplement containing salt to avoid deficiencies in your cattle. Avoid use of plain white salt blocks or trace mineralized salt blocks.
Water is often overlooked as a nutrient but is vitally important for cattle nutrition. Clean water is most important to young, growing calves. Inadequate water consumption will limit feed intake and reduce growth and performance.
How Do I Know if I Need a Supplement?
During winter months, most cattle producers rely primarily on hay as their main feed source. Good to high quality hay is an excellent feed source for cattle. However, hay quality varies greatly from year to year or even cutting to cutting. Environmental factors adversely affects hay quality, as well as man-made factors like improper fertilization and harvesting.
Because hay represents such a large portion of a cow’s diet and quality varies so much, it is strongly recommended that you chemically analyze your hay source(s) for nutritional content. This service is modestly priced and will save you money in the long run. By testing your hay, you will know its exact nutritional content and will allow you to make better management decisions. Knowing the nutritional content of your hay will allow you to more efficiently allot hay according to cattle needs. Knowledge of forage nutritional content will also allow you to save money by purchasing the correct supplements to meet the needs of your cattle – no more, no less.