Bred cow nutrition and optimal body condition

Jan 4, 2019

How much does cow nutrition during pregnancy effect the subsequent performance of the offspring throughout life? Jon Albro discusses how important maternal nutrition is during early pregnancy.


Tom:      I’m Tom Martin and I’m speaking with Jon Albro, a nutritionist with CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements.

                Greetings, Jon.

Jon:        Greetings. Thank you.

Tom:      To start off, can you tell us how much energy and protein requirements change during pregnancy and throughout the course of the year for your typical beef cow?

Jon:        Well, the energy and protein requirements move up and down throughout the course of the year and it’s all dependent upon where that cow is at in her production cycle from a calving standpoint. Obviously, the highest nutrient requirements are going to be just right after calving and for a couple of months during peak lactation. Then they’re going to kind of drop throughout the course of the next several months as that calf is starting to eat more feed on its own and will bottom out about the time the calf is weaned and then climb again into the late second and third trimesters.

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                And if you look at these changes throughout the year, it can be over 55 percent on an energy basis and about 75 percent or more on the protein side of things. But, I kind of wanted to point out where those highs and lows were throughout the year. And, this stays about the same over the course of the entire pregnancy with the greatest degree of change really taking place in the last trimester.

Tom:      When things get busy in the late spring or early summer, can it be a mistake to assume the cows are doing just fine from a nutritional perspective?

Jon:        Yes, it really can. And this is somewhat dependent on the calving season and the age of the calves that are nursing at that time, especially from a mineral standpoint. In some calving systems, this is when we’re breeding animals (in the spring and summertime) and nutrient demand may be declining for the cow because there’s more forage quality and more forage quantity available to her and the calf is growing and maybe taking less — less from the cow and more from the grass. We don’t always worry about this from a protein and energy standpoint, but trace mineral nutrition is very important at this time — not only trace minerals, but also your macrominerals like phosphorous or magnesium.

But, oftentimes this is where we can get busy with farming or other enterprises that we might have in our agriculture farming or ranching operation; there may be some farming going on or something else where you’re going to be doing spring tillage work and we can easily forget about the cows. And, you know if we’re going to have some problems with our mineral program, it can oftentimes be during the spring or the summer. This is where we might be dealing with more antagonisms in the water or in other forages that are native that we’re grazing. It might be a time where management isn’t paid quite as much attention to and mineral programs can be compromised just due to management factors or other things.

Tom:      This may be kind of obvious, but maybe not for that matter. How important is maternal nutrition during early pregnancy?

Jon:        That’s a good question. I’m glad you brought it up. A lot of people focus more on that nutrition during mid- and especially in late pregnancy because the requirements are obviously going up for a cow. But early pregnancy sometimes can cause some issues that we might not be aware of and we might not even relate to being a problem during pregnancy, or more so, a problem during breeding season.

                But, oftentimes if a cow gets bred and she conceives, and if she is in a negative energy balance for period of time — like if she goes out onto lush grass right after she’s bred, or is being bred on a lush grass program — around day 17 to day 21, there is a risk for embryonic death loss. That can sometimes occur because there may be a little bit of a negative energy balance in the animal due to really lush grass where they basically cannot eat quite enough to meet all their energy requirements at that time.

                It’s a short window for the most part, but it can happen and oftentimes what happens is maybe that cow still breeds, she just breeds late. And we just look at her as maybe being a late breeding animal, but it could relate back to just nutrition right there during the breeding season.

Tom:      So, Jon, how does nutrition during the course of the pregnancy impact calf health at calving?

Jon:        Well, a lot of this relates to the body condition of the cow. And, there’s a lot of research out there that’s been done on this area regarding fetal programming, where that’s basically the influence on what the nutritional status is or what can happen by providing a certain supplement to the cow during pregnancy and how that impacts both the development of that fetus and the performance of that animal once it’s born all the way to later on life.

                But, probably more so from a body condition score, there’s also a lot of work that has been done on this looking at whether or not cows are in good condition during pregnancy and at calving, and how that affects the calf later on. There’s a lot of studies showing that there can be impacts on calving ease. You might have more weak calves that have less vigor; they don’t get up and they don’t nurse as quick. They don’t get as much colostrum or the quality of the colostrum is compromised from a cow that’s been cheated during pregnancy or that might have been either underfed or is in poor body condition. And that can have a huge influence on how well that calf gets a good start in life. So, that’s very, very important.

Tom:      Does nutrition during pregnancy affect the subsequent performance of the offspring throughout life?

Jon:        Yes, it certainly does. There’s a lot of work that’s been done on this in the last decade or so in regards to fetal or developmental programming. And, this has been a fascinating area of research that’s gotten a lot of attention and a lot of popular press over the last several years. Looking at those impacts of if we supplement cows with some protein or even with mineral nutrition during the second and third trimesters and even in early gestation, it’s showing that the calves in the subsequent generation — the next offspring — those calves would actually have a higher weaning weight based only on the nutrition that was done in pregnancy.

In a lot of these studies, once the calves were born, everything got treated the same — the cows got treated the same, the calves got treated the same and so, any impact or any change in performance was due to that nutrition given to the cow during pregnancy.

                And so, weaning weights can be impacted, as well as fertility of heifers, carcass merit and feedlot performance. Even looking at heifers that grow up that have been supplemented from dams — once those heifers are developed and bred, looking at how well their calving ease is or how much dystocia they have, it’s actually been reduced based on how well their mothers were fed during pregnancy when they were still in utero.

Tom:      How does body condition affect nutrient requirements when we’re talking about both average age cows and younger animals?            

Jon:        That’s a good question because sometimes we just lump body condition score and nutrient requirements all into one category. But, for younger animals, like a heifer that calves and then needs to get re-bred again, by the time she’s 2.5 or 3 years old, she’s still growing and she’s going to have a higher demand for energy and even a little bit on protein and the type of protein that her body can benefit from as a younger animal. So, she’s going to have a higher energy requirement.

                And then, thin cows — those that have actually have gone down in body condition — they require more energy to catch back up, especially if it’s in the wintertime where they’re going to need more energy because they’re not going to be quite as efficient; thinner cows are not as efficient. They might metabolize more muscle and that’s a very inefficient way to derive energy in the body system and they’re also not going to have as much insulation or fat cover and so, they’re just going to be less efficient when it comes to cold tolerance, so they will have a higher energy requirement.

                The University of Wyoming has done some interesting research on this, showing that that those thinner animals in a lower body condition score actually have lower ribeye areas and less muscle mass that makes them a lot less efficient.

Tom:      So, what is considered optimal cow body condition?

Jon:        Well, body condition is a scale that we use to score cattle from 1 to 9; 1 being extremely thin, 9 being very fat. And the optimum condition that most beef cattle producers and professors at universities that study this area of nutrition would look for is a score of 5 to 6.

                And, I do want to point out as well though that this is the U.S. scale, from 1 to 9. Our neighbors in Canada actually use a 1 to 5 scale that might be a little more practical or easier to understand. The concept is the same relative to the number as far as where the ideal body condition is and the midpoint. But, I just wanted to point that out because we do have a lot of listeners in Canada and a lot of subscribers to the blog and the podcast.

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Tom:      Okay. We’ve been talking about the individual cow, but how does body condition impact the overall performance of a cow herd, both from a performance and economic impact?      

Jon:        Well, we talked a little bit already about the performance. Cows that are in poor body condition are going to have calves that are at subpar performance. They’re going to have lower weaning weights or could have more potential health problems at calving; they could have more dystocia at calving and all that.

                But, probably the biggest parameter that we measure related to body condition score that has the biggest economic impact on the herd is just reproductive efficiency. There’s been some really good work over the years at some very respectable universities like Oklahoma State, Purdue, and others, that have compared cows that calve in poor body condition versus adequate body condition and showing very significant reductions in how well their pregnancy rate is overall, how many days it takes them to return to estrus into the heat cycle, and what that postpartum interval is — that postpartum interval actually gets longer.

                And so, from an economic standpoint that creates a great challenge for having thin cows; they’re going to cost more money and you’re going to have less animals breed back, and that’s the biggest single profit-robber there is in the beef cattle industry — poor breed-back performance.

Tom:      Jon, we’ve got just a little bit of time left, and we’re all always looking for a handy app that will help make life easier. What about the beef cow body condition score app which kind of goes with what we were talking about before. How does that work?

Jon:        We developed this a couple of years ago or actually had an update to it a couple of years ago. We’ve had it out for probably four or five years now. And it’s a tool that you can get through CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements and you can just download it for free from your app store on any smartphone platform, either iPhone or an Android. And, it’s a handy gauge that really helps you keep track of what those condition scores would be for a cow.

It doesn’t actually take a picture and give an automatic score; it doesn’t have that artificial intelligence. You have to basically give an animal a score yourself, but it has reference charts on there you can look at and say, okay, this cow is at a body condition score of 5 or 6 or 7 and then, you can kind of make your own subjective judgment on your own animals. You can take a picture and then the nice thing about it is you can store it in a file and make some notes on it.

                But, the bottom line is you can compare what an individual cow might look like today, or what her body condition score will be today compared to 30 days from now or compared to 30 days ago. So, a good way to do this is to go out and pick five or ten animals in your herd and then go back out and give them a body condition score and then go back about another 30 days from now or whatever period of time you choose, and score/evaluate those same animals so you get a good comparison on which way their condition might be moving. So, it’s just a nice tool to help keep track and organize things.

Tom:      Alright, that’s Jon Albro, he’s a nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements.

                Thanks, Jon.

Jon:        Thank you. 


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