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Animal Health Notebook

No Silver Bullets For Supplementing Your Cattle Operation

Different ranches, cattle and environments require different solutions to supplement needs.

Editor's note: In R.P. Cooke’s April Animal Health Notebook on calf health, he mentioned mixing a seven-way vaccine with procaine penicillin. Farm Progress and its sponsors do not endorse extralabel practices. Always consult your veterinarian.

A well-planned supplement program attempts to look at all systems and seldom means simply ordering a load of blocks, tubs or bags.

Remember that every ranch is unique, and coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to happen. I like to think of supplements as low-cost inputs that tweak a system which is "almost working" in to a system that is “working.”

Too much of today’s agriculture is based on production and marketing which sports an ever bigger band-aid in order to cover an ever bigger gaping hole. The cost of a fix has driven profitability away from the farm/ranch.

Artificially produced high production and low profitability are most often seen together, and the silver bullet that is much spoken about and often promised does not, in fact, exist. The same is true regarding supplementation.

Incidentally, proper supplementation is helps assure herd health as does healthy soil and pasture.

Our first consideration in the cattle business normally involves high profit production goals and forage energy levels. Yet production goals are most profitable when they are consistently in the area of low moderate to moderate. On grass operations, energy is the limiting factor to weight gains and other production parameters more than 90% of the days each year.

In other words, there are only six to eight weeks annually that most of us have really good grass, and often that falls far short of perfection. The rest of the year our pastures are less than optimal for above-moderate production. This is generally blamed on plant maturity but is mostly man made due to lack of soil health and plant diversity.

The most efficient gains by cattle on pasture usually come from cell wall starch digestion of plants that are in early stages (boot) of seed development. Later on in development, the plant tends to have less energy for cattle due to the ruminant’s inability to efficiently digest hard seeds and lignin.

Therefore, supplementing them with small amounts of highly soluble natural protein such as soybean meal, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal or peas, stimulates the rumen microbes and increases the speed and efficiency of digestion up to 20%. This also stimulates the cow’s appetite.

Remember that urea, a common supplement and a non-protein nitrogen, stresses the rumen microbes when energy is deficient. NPN is often linked closely with health problems and poorer performance, especially in individuals that are under more stress.

The major gauge I use to monitor the amount of protein supplementation needed is my own eyes. I observe the herd and many of the individual animals closely every time I am with them. This would be a minimum of three or more times weekly in the winter and once to twice a day in the growing season.

Here is what I am monitoring:

•Fullness of the poorer cattle
•Cud chewing -- When lying down, more than 70% of the cattle should be chewing their cud
•Aggressiveness of foraging
•Manure piles should be 2 to 3 inches thick, the consistency of peanut butter, and have a one-half-inch deep saucer in the middle
•Flat or sheet-like manure indicates a lack of plant maturity, resulting in a lack of forage fiber, lack of structural carbohydrates, high plant NPN, high plant potassium (potash) levels, and high plant moisture levels. That leads to cattle stress, sickness, metabolic and digestive abnormalities. Sudden pasture or feed changes often result in wrecks. It takes 14 to 21 days to adapt to change. Changes should be gradual with a little dry hay and limited access and time when moving from drier forage to “prettier” forage. Remember: Everything affects everything.
•Cattle movement in the pasture to fresh forage or supplement. If the cattle are not full, they need to be and likely need a larger cut of forage or need to be moved more often. Cattle that act like they are starving all the time usually are starving.
•Urine pH should measure in the high sixes to a low sevens.

Remember that in environments with rainfall amounts exceeding 35 inches, cattle need to be full all the time in order to be at least moderately productive. This means the cattle are full before movement to a fresh cut of grass, other forage or hay.

Next time you're thinking about cattle supplements, think about what it is that you are trying to accomplish.

The opinions of R.P. Cooke are not necessarily those of Beef Producer or the Penton Farm Progress Group.

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