Well-fed pregnant cows reward producers with better offspring

Good nutrition begins at conception, says a North Dakota State University researcher. 

Many factors may affect a young cow after calving season is over, but a growing body of research shows that fine-tuning feeding programs for pregnant cattle may affect the performance of their offspring for years to come. 

For producers, that could mean improved fertility and carcass quality, Kendall Swanson told producers at a recent Western Beef Development Centre field day at the Termuende Research Ranch near Lanigan, Sask. 

“We know that nutrition impacts that specific animal, but now we know a lot more that it also affects the fertility of that cow’s heifer or the performance of that steer born from that cow that was fed differently,” said Swanson. 

“That’s the new exciting area that people are looking into now.”

Swanson said researchers are beginning to assess the long-term affects of over- and underfeeding pregnant animals and supplementing protein. 

“Sometimes when we’re trying different management techniques to reduce feed costs, it might be really important times that might influence this fetal and developmental program.”

An American study with sheep found reduced blood flow to the fetus in pregnant ewes. Swanson said the lambs were lighter at birth and more likely to be challenged by obesity and diabetes as they mature. 

American researchers studying protein supplementation in cattle found pregnancy rates improved from 80 to 93 percent in heifers born from cows that received supplementation compared to a control group grazing on pasture. They also found improved marbling in steers. 

“It’s really interesting how something we do to the cow could influence the fertility of the heifer,” said Swanson, who acknowledged forage quality would also affect performance. 

In his own research program, Swanson has studied the effects of supplementation of dried distillers grain on beef cattle in mid to late gestation. 

In that project, cattle were fed corn stover, while another group received the same forage with DDG at .3 percent of body weight. 

The animals that were supplemented gained weight during the pregnancy and consumed more forages. 

“I think maybe because it was corn stocks and they were real low quality, that the protein supplementation within the distillers helped make that rumen more healthy and allowed those animals to digest the corn stocks better and also consume more of them.”

Swanson also measured increased blood flow to the uterus, which suggested increased fetal development. 

This area of research, dubbed “developmental programming,” is relatively new, and more research is needed following the performance of these animals as they move through the production system. 

“Maybe we would feed a cow differently for a specific type of carcass for a specific market — restaurant beef versus other types of beef — or maybe for cows to perform in a specific type of environment with low quality feeds or high quality feeds.”

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