Matching Nutrient Intake to the Production Cycle of Beef Cows

Allen Gahler, Extension Educator for Agriculture and Natural Resources, OSU Extension-Sandusky County (originally published in The Ohio Cattleman)

Could we reduce our total feed needs by more correctly matching the breeding season to our feed resources?

Whether you are jumping into or preparing for breeding season, or you calve in the fall and have recently turned out mid gestation cows, you certainly have had a lower feed bill on your mind as the winter feeding period comes to an end. That lower feed bill is usually a welcome beginning to a new growing season, and the worry of making it through another winter is replaced by the worry of making the right breeding decisions and weaning off a profitable calf crop.  But perhaps we could alleviate some of those other worries by focusing more on the timing of the breeding season as it relates to what we are feeding them, rather than which bull matches better with each group of cows and which bull is truly heifer safe.

What I am talking about is stepping back and taking a good hard look at when we calve and comparing it to the quality of our available feed at any given time during the year.  Because we live in Ohio and have a defined growing season, that also defines our period of using stored feeds, at least to an extent.  So, if we are not all capable of being year-round grazers, we owe it to our pocketbooks to be year-round managers.

A cow’s nutritional requirements change 4 times throughout the year, and for easy reference, lets define those 4 times as period 1, 2, 3, and 4.  We will leave the traditional calendar out of it for now, and call the 82-day period from calving to breeding our period 1.  This is when the cow’s nutritional demands are at their peak, and when we must be utilizing the best feed available to maximize milk production and calf growth, maintain body condition of the cow, shorten the anestrous period, and make a 365-day calving cycle more likely.  The next 123 days that we will call period 2, occur from breeding to weaning, and this time frame coincides with a declining plan of nutritional demand.  If she remains in good body condition, and is confirmed pregnant, she is entering a window of maintenance, and as the calf consumes more feed on its own, her body’s focus on lactation requires less energy and protein than in period 1.

Period 3 then runs for 110 days and lasts from weaning into the beginning of the 3rd trimester.  With no milk production, and the calf growing inside her at only a moderate rate, this is the lowest nutritional phase of the year, and a time when we can utilize our poorest quality feedstuffs, assuming the cow is in good body condition.  If she is not, it is a time when we can easily increase body condition with slightly better feeds or supplements.  That brings us to period 4 – the last 50 days of gestation.  This period coincides with the most vigorous growth of the fetus in the womb, and a steadily increasing plane of nutrition to meet the calf’s needs and to begin preparing for lactation.  If we do not begin changing over to higher quality feeds soon enough in this period, we often sacrifice calf vigor, quality of colostrum, and early milk production.

Once we see these four periods defined and understand what the nutritional demands are during each one, then we can lay our current cow productivity calendar on top of these periods and the forage growth calendar to see if we are timing things properly to maximize production and ultimately, our bottom line.  Probably the best way to do that is to look at our calving window and think about what feeds we have available at that time.  If we truly want our best quality feeds available during period 1, that period should probably not start until around April 1, when pastures green up, and we can allow the cow to harvest her own high-quality feed.  Period 2 then occurs from mid-June through October when the pastures are not as lush and productive, but still nutritionally sufficient for the moderate demands during breeding season.  We then meet period 3 and the lowest needs of the cow as pastures go dormant and we can move to stockpiled fescue, corn fodder, or our lowest quality hay that has potentially been stored outside since June, absorbing summer rains, and losing quality rapidly.  If we were able to store 2nd and 3rd cutting hay inside or get into a case of supplementing with grain products, those feeds can now be utilized during period 4, which falls during late winter when we likely have cows in a location that makes feeding easier.

Some might argue the viability of breeding during summer’s hottest times, and still others without readily available high-quality pastures might argue a better window for high quality feeds occurs in the fall.  This makes a fall calving herd (September-October) a good scenario, especially for those with abundant hay supplies, or those that can graze crop fields or pastures that have been inter-seeded with annual forages.  If we are storing round bales outside, this would allow us to first utilize the highest quality ones that were made most recently, and gradually mix in lower quality 2nd and 1st cutting as the winter progresses.  If pasture availability is low or turnout does not happen until mid-May such as in Northern Ohio, our lowest demand period 3 matches with this time of year, and we hit period 4 not long after we are finally able to get to pasture, and new 1st cutting if needed.

You might be wondering, what about those seedstock herds that feel the need to calve in January and February to maximize calf size at weaning, bull age at sale time, and the availability of bred replacements for the commercial market?  Well, this is where that word management comes in.  It takes careful management to properly store and utilize the necessary feed resources for a program like this to work and remain profitable, forcing the manager to weigh potential income from breeding stock sales vs. the potential added feed costs by not being able to properly align the 4 periods of cow nutritional requirements with mother nature’s seasons and the availability of traditional feeds in Ohio.

As with anything in the agriculture industry, it will take proper planning, a sharp pencil, and a sharper mind, but there are always ways to improve your efficiency and your bottom line, we just may need to think outside the box, or in this case, outside the calendar.