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Animal Health Notebook
Farmer getting a delivery of supplement Alan Newport
Author says energy is one of the most lacking nutrients on a fully forage diet.

Cattle performance should not be a fourth-quarter game

Planning and preparation can help you get the right kind of cattle and supplement them at the critical times.

Pregnant cows with 5-month-old calves at their side do not have to perform real well in the fall of the year if they fattened to BCS of 6.5 or more during the later part of the growing season while getting bred.

If they aren’t carrying external fat and shiny hair and if they fail to stay full then the winter weight loss can quickly become severe.

We get the opportunity to look at several cows, including our own, and here is a lot of what we pay attention to:

  • Abdominal fill
  • Flatness of the back
  • Disappearance of the last three ribs
  • Flat and fullness on both sides of the tail head
  • Shine to the hair
  • A little fat in the brisket (but full and extended briskets beg culling)
  • Brightness of the eyes
  • Small udder that is seldom full

I continue to contend that smaller, short-coupled cows and heifers come nearer fitting our desires. I never recommend retaining or keeping big, pretty heifers. In fact, I call these freaks because they have received way too much high-sugar milk and have developed too quickly. Lots of producers want them, however. Let them go.

The cattle that have at least twice the distance from top to bottom as they do from the bottom to the ground have all the advantages on the pasture. Smaller ribeye-area cattle get ready much easier for winter and sail through the non-growing season with few hitches.

Most of the cattle I inspect are too long, too big, produce too much milk, lack capacity and body condition and just have problems wintering in a low-cost, no-hay program. They also have a problem wintering in hay programs in our country.

Presently at home we have lots of diverse grass, legumes and forbs, but there are huge numbers of cattle that won’t do any good in a similar environment because they cannot pick and process enough plant material in a 24-hour grazing period. Remember that cattle only have about eight hours to graze in every 24 hours. Grazing is work. High-density grazing reduces the walking exercise but it often maximizes the grazing exercise.

Years ago and for lots of years I had a buddy named B.D. Yates, who specialized and loved peewee cattle. A peewee is a calf from 180-300 pounds. B.D loved sale barns and he would go to one every day when he was between real jobs and had money. B.D. told me years ago that those little fellers would clean up a pasture after you got them accustomed to a little supplemental feed every day and had them "straightened out." He normally kept them long enough to grow 200 or more pounds of gain and clear a minimum of $100. We had never heard of profit per acre back then but B.D. would run 50 to 70 of these boys on 40 acres and sell off the best end every 45 to 90 days.

Cattle performance is a necessity for those of us that are serious about this business. I think of several things we need to remember:

  • Health – Cattle that have had negative issues, especially respiratory problems, will likely never perform. Shipping them on a pretty day after the first of the year is a good decision.
  • Soil health – Cattle are what they eat. Plants grow and reflect nutritionally the soil under them. What grows in our pastures and cattle self harvest is a beef producer’s main income stream. If you are not interested in growing your soil, my question is why not?
  • High plant diversity – Native prairies and savannahs grew 100 or more different plant species annually and the cattle grazed the majority of those plants. Fences and most management decisions have severely limited the plant diversity. Our job is to manage toward increased species numbers.
  • Adapted cattle – Almost everybody is now talking about cattle that are adapted to their environment. Are we actually serious about getting this done?
  • Supplements – Feeding cattle what they do not have access to but need is what supplementation is all about. There are normally three things that I look at: energy, protein, minerals and salt.

We know most pastures, especially in the case of cool-season pastures, are lacking energy 300 days per year or more, and we also know that energy is the most difficult and expensive component to supplement. Minerals can be understood much better as we study soil chemistry. The cattle normally respond to mineralization that is lacking in our area. Soluble protein in small amounts may need to be added to drive the cattle to work and the bugs to digest our winter haystack to a higher degree.

Truth is that cattle do not or should not have to perform at a high level during the non-growing season if they are pregnant. But they do have to perform without major weight loss over a short period of time. Strategically planned and delivered supplementation can buffer many expected problems and eliminate troubles of the past.

One thing we need to remember is to start supplementation before you know for a fact that you need it. In other words if you wait till it sticks out like a sore thumb you are real late. The cattle business is not a fourth-quarter game.

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