SAN DIEGO, California — A cow’s nutrition program should contain enough protein to make sure it calves every year.
Protein supplements come in many forms but it is hard to determine which is most convenient, how often should it be delivered and whether the cattle will eat it, animal nutritionists said during an education session at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention held in San Diego from Jan. 26-29.
Everything starts in the rumen, said Clay Mathis, director of King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management.
The rumen is full of micro-oganisms and they need to be fed first to unlock nutrients for the host. When they are well fed, the cow’s requirements for lactation, gestation and growth are also met.
“If we think about a cow that is in Florida, southern California or Canada, inside that rumen the same fundamental stuff happens,” said Mathis.
Those rumen microbes need nitrogen found in protein so they can reproduce and digest forages.
“If there is not enough nitrogen for those rumen microbes to function efficiently then they can’t digest as rapidly,” he said.
Less energy will be released.
“If the diet is less than seven percent crude protein, protein supplementation is usually needed,” Mathis said.
The problem is too few producers have forage tested to assess the nutrient content.
But producers can still check the quantity and colour of the forage. If it is brown, protein is likely less than seven percent. If it is green, protein and energy levels are probably sufficient so supplementation of energy or protein is probably not necessary.
If cows are thin when they start winter grazing when the forages are dormant, there could be a drop in reproductive performance. They may not cycle after calving.
To get them in better shape, feed protein at a higher level based on body weight. For example, a 1,400 pound cow would need up to four lb. of protein per day.
A dry cow weighing 1,200 lb. needs 1.2 lb. of protein per day. If the cow is nursing the requirements go up to support the calf as well. At peak lactation, double that amount of protein.
If event of a severe feed shortage, producers should supplement with more protein. Energy can be made up with inexpensive sources of highly digestible fibre available.
Adding grain may not solve the energy problem.
Studies have found the more corn cows ate, the less hay they ate. Feeding four lb. of corn did not increase total energy intake because the rumen microbes may struggle to digest that extra starch when they are used to digesting fibre.
Sawyer said good nutrition can correct many problems.
“Nutrition provides you with the best and fastest set of tools to manage your operational goals,” said Jason Sawyer of Texas A & M University.
How frequently should a supplement be fed?
“If the supplement is truly designed to deliver additional protein, you can get away with feeding as infrequently as once or twice a week,” he said.
However extra energy should be offered every day.
Hidden costs of supplementation exist. Besides paying for extra protein, remember delivering feed to the cows has a labour and vehicle cost. Think about the number of cattle being fed as well. It costs less to feed more cows.
There are a number of different products available. Each operation has to decide what works best.
Some prefer hand feeding where the supplements are delivered to the cows and the products are immediately consumed.
Self feeding involves delivering less frequently in larger amounts so the cattle take it themselves.
The biggest advantage of self feeding is lower delivery costs but intake is more variable because cows will not eat the same amount. Boss cows will get more compared to the smaller or more timid ones who may not get enough to eat.
With a hand fed system, there are always about five percent that do not eat any supplement. In a self fed system as many as 20 percent may not get enough.
Cubes are designed to be hand fed and can be used to move cattle. These can be fed on the ground unless there is snow or mud.
Pressed blocks or range cubes are available. Old blocks should be completely consumed before new blocks are added.
Liquid feed supplements have been innovative but have the least flexibility because not everything can be put into a liquid.
If feeding protein, urea can be added. It lowers feed costs per tonne and it a readily available source of protein, but it can affect palatability if overfed.
A final piece of advice is to check manure pads. These can show changing conditions of a pasture and are a good indicator of the quality of cow’s diet. The downside is that manure does not show intake.