Third trimester nutrition and protein supplementation on low quality forages

Jan 3, 2020

How can you stretch your forages this winter? Jill (Larson) Peine talks about the increased nutritional requirements of spring calving herds this time of year and gives her tips for supplementing low quality forages to ensure your herd is getting the critical nutrients they need.


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Tom:    I’m Tom Martin and we’re joined by Ridley nutritionist, Jill Peine, to talk about third trimester nutrition and protein supplementation on low quality forages. Greetings, Jill.

Jill:       Hi, Tom.

Tom:    As we think back on this past year, conditions have been challenging for many farmers and ranchers. We’re wondering if you could recap for us how, from a nutritional perspective, these weather conditions have been especially challenging for cattle producers.

Jill:       This past year, weather conditions have been quite interesting and presented many challenges in a variety of ways. If we look across many parts of the country, we have seen wetter than normal conditions. I was just recently visiting with a producer from Nebraska who said much of their operation is still under water from this past spring. So, across many parts of country, harvest was more challenging than normal due to these wet conditions in the field. But, from a cow feeding perspective and pastures, the grass is washy from the increased moisture. And if we think about the harvested forages specifically, these wet conditions throughout the summer months also come with many challenges of putting up good-quality hay. While, at the same time, many southern states were very hot and dry over the summer and into the fall. And both of these conditions — both hot and dry, as well as wet — can result in a much more challenging time putting up hay with much more variation and potentially lower quality hay than one would expect. While we always recommend testing your forages each year to determine what you have nutritionally,  it’s especially important this year due to the variation in quality that is expected because of the hay getting rained on or [being] potentially less available due to drought-like conditions, among other reasons.

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Tom:    Okay, you touched on pasture conditions. What is out there as far as grass availability in these pastures?

Jill:       With the summer and fall being unseasonably wet for many areas, when we look out on pasture, we may think that cows have more than enough yet to graze. However, if we think about the moisture content, there is potential for these nutrients to be diluted out. And, as we move through the fall, those grasses mature and reach dormancy. As that happens, quality is rapidly declining, becoming much more fibrous and difficult to digest on their own. And many northern states may have experienced snowfall earlier in the year than expected, making grass availability even more restricted and, in turn, feeding hay earlier in the year than what may have been expected.

Tom:    With the variation in forage quality and, if producers still have grass available through the fall and winter even if lower in quality, what would you recommend they do?

Jill:       First, as I had mentioned earlier, test your forages. That will give you the nutrient information to know where you’re at and how much supplementation is needed given that forage quality. There may be more variation there in quality compared to more normal-type years or conditions. But knowing what you have available will help determine what is missing or how much is missing from a nutritional requirement standpoint for your cattle. When forage quality is poor, the first-limiting nutrient will be protein. The rumen microbes require protein to supply the ammonia needed for microbial growth. And if protein is limited in a ruminant diet, microbial activity, protein synthesis, and also the rate of digestion is limited, which reduces feed intake and the total energy that is available. So, with poor quality hay or late season mature forages out on pasture, the increase in fiber creates gut fill and limits how much cattle can physically consume. This, in turn, can have negative effects on overall productivity, such as the loss of body condition, maybe poor milk production, and even improper fetal development. So, by providing a high-quality protein supplement, whether that is coming from natural protein or nonprotein nitrogen resources like urea, the delivery of protein is made more readily available for those microbes. That will then help improve the rumen function and that healthy rumen bacteria will be able to ferment this forage fiber into rumen volatile fatty acids or VFAs, which [are] the cow’s energy source.

            So, to put it simply, even a small amount of supplemental protein will help increase the digestibility and overall available energy, which improves efficiency and can help stretch your forages to get more out of it. And, if we think about this even outside of the nutritional value of self-fed supplements, CRYSTALYX® can also be used as a grazing management tool. During the fall and even the winter months, cattle out on pasture may take the easy route and graze near water areas or lowland areas, which may lead to overgrazing in those specific areas. But, if we strategically place those barrels in areas where we want the cattle to go, such as highland areas or the rougher terrain areas, it can help lure them into grazing in those more underutilized areas. And even after the wet conditions this year or potentially dry conditions — [many experienced] drought-like conditions in the east and south — cattle may be coming up thinner this time of year than what is ideal. And so, it’s important to body condition score your cows and help determine what nutritional program is best as we head into the winter months. The easiest and most economical time to put on this condition is during the second trimester, after those calves have been weaned and before those nutrient requirements increase in late gestation and into lactation.

Tom:    We’re talking with Ridley nutritionist, Jill Peine. Jill, many spring-calving cows, as you just suggested, are either in or coming into late gestation. What changes in a cow’s nutritional requirements during this time of year?

Jill:       Well, to start off, regardless of spring calvers or fall or even replacement heifers, for many parts of the country, temperatures are dropping and will continue to [do so] this time of year. And so, energy requirements for maintenance in turn will then increase due to these lower temperatures, in addition to increased energy requirements for production. As fall calving is wrapping up, cows are in peak lactation and we are breeding them back. Nutrition during this time of year is important, not only for the cow, but also to provide enough milk for her growing calf and also to be able to rebreed in a timely fashion. This is the time of year for those fall calvers with the greatest nutritional requirement. However, the second greatest time is when those nutritional requirements are high during the third trimester of gestation, which we are either in or approaching depending on the spring calving system. We have heard a lot about fetal programming [and] how the cow’s nutrition can have positive or even negative effects on your calf before that calf is born. With this fetal or developmental programming in mind, producers also need to keep on the top of their mind the hay quality that they may be feeding their cows right now or dormant pasture conditions and think about supplementing with a protein supplement to meet those cow and fetal requirements. As a general rule of thumb, cows require about 9% crude protein during late gestation, and that is actually bumped up to 11 or 12% crude protein for lactation. We have seen, during periods of drought, when cows may not be meeting their nutrient requirement. As a result, pregnancy rates may decline or heifer calves may not be retained in the herd long due to poor production or even steer progeny may not be as profitable, and the same can hold true when feeding poor quality forage sources. The best indicators to determine if you’re meeting those nutrient requirements for your cows during late gestation is to body condition score the cows. Spring-calving cows should be in a body condition score of about 5 to 6 this time of year based on the 9-point scale. But, what’s important to keep in mind is to help differentiate between gut fill and fat or condition. Poor quality forages take longer to digest, meaning they sit in the rumen to be broken down for a longer period of time than higher-quality feedstuffs. And so, cattle may appear to be full. But, in reality, they are still thin. Look over their top, tailhead and brisket areas to help determine the true condition the cows are in when in these situations of increased gut fill.

Tom:    What selections from the CRYSTALYX product line would you recommend for these conditions and for this time of year?

Jill:       This is really dependent on hay quality and the diet you’re feeding your cows. But, this time of year, we would recommend supplementing with a protein supplement of 20% or more.

            Specifically, during late gestation and leading up to calving, a good product would be the Breed-Up® line or Blueprint® Breed-Up. Breed-Up [products] are formulated at 200% of the NRC mineral and vitamin requirements for beef cattle and it’s a good product to use 30 days prior to calving through the breeding period, when there is a lot of nutritional stress on those animals that’s associated with both calving and the breeding period. The difference in the Breed-Up and Blueprint Breed-Up is the Blueprint version is made up of 100% Bioplex® organic trace minerals, where the Breed-Up alone contains a partial replacement with organic trace minerals, but still some inorganic. Bioplex organic trace minerals have a lot of good research behind them in terms of calf health, colostrum quality, and also reproductive results. And so, these are available with both a protein supplement and also a mineral supplement [for situations] when that additional protein may not be needed. There are also quite a few CRYSTALYX products with additional technology included to help improve production. The addition of Bio-Mos® or Actigen® in particular can help support colostrum quality, can help improve gut health and also the nutrient transfer from the cows to the calves. With these weather conditions we have been experiencing over the summer and through the fall, we may be more at risk for forages that contain mycotoxins in some areas. And so, there are additional additives to help combat those conditions as well. Now, we often think about much of this with cattle, but the same holds true for a small ruminant as well. For sheep and goats in particular in late gestation this time of year, Sheep-lyx™ or Goat-lyx® are also great sources of supplemental protein, minerals, and also vitamins. Both of these products also contain Bioplex organic trace minerals, as well as Bio-Mos for superior nutrition.

Tom:    Well, Jill, producers who are listening to us may want to dig for more information on their own, where can they go to learn more?

Jill:       The best resource would be to go to our website,, and learn more about product options, research, and also to find their local CRYSTALYX dealer.

Tom:    Ridley nutritionist, Jill Peine. Thanks for joining us, Jill.

Jill:       Thank you, Tom.