Cow nutrition in early pregnancy affects calf productivity

Early pregnancy when the cow’s placenta is forming

An animal’s productivity potential can be found in both its genetic makeup and environmental factors such as good nutrition, housing, climate and disease prevention.

However, there might be one more factor to consider: fetal programming.

More research has been highlighting the importance of this area, which has significant implications for beef cattle production. 

Fetal programming suggests that an animal’s future performance can be affected by the environment it experiences within the uterus during the early stages of development. 

It was first identified in humans shortly after the Second World War, when children born to undernourished mothers during the Dutch famine of 1944 had long-term developmental and growth problems and were more likely to be susceptible to chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease as adults. 

It appears that a similar syndrome can appear in livestock.

Studies have shown that poor maternal nutrition during gestation can result in increased calf mortality, metabolic disorders, reduced meat quality and decreased growth rates later in life. Most of the studies feed pregnant cows two diets during gestation: one is usually adequate or supplemented and the other is usually a marginal diet. 

In one study in Nebraska, heifer calves born from cows supplemented with protein in late gestation had greater weaning weights and prebreeding weights and were heavier at pregnancy checking time. 

Most importantly, they were also more likely to be pregnant (93 percent) when compared to heifers from unsupplemented cows (83 percent). 

It appears there are two important time periods in gestation where the nutrition of the dam may affect its offspring’s ability to express its genetic potential: 

The placenta is responsible for ex-changing nutrients from the pregnant cow to its growing fetus. The efficiency of this process is related to the early development of the placenta and its blood supply. 

Cows that are on marginal diets during this time period may have poorer placental development, which could have lifelong productivity implications for offspring even though they appear normal when born.

Seventy-five percent of fetal growth and a significant amount of organ development occurs during this time period. 

Maternal nutrition may influence fetal organ development, muscle development, postnatal calf performance, carcass characteristics and reproduction of the offspring.

I’ve often spoken at conferences and written articles about the importance of cow nutrition and body condition. In most of these articles, I’ve focused primarily on the effects of nutrition on the cow’s future reproductive success and on the cow’s own welfare. However, much of the research on fetal programming is showing that maternal nutrition may also have an important effect on the offspring’s future productivity. 

We don’t completely understand all of the mechanisms behind fetal programming and placental development, and more research is needed and is underway . 

It is becoming clear that managing the nutrition of the pregnant cow is an important aspect of cattle husbandry if we want to maximize the cow’s productivity and the future productivity of its offspring.

John Campbell is head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.


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