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Guest Opinions

The Importance of Pre-Calving Management

Written by Steve Paisley

By Steve Paisley, UW Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

Fall hay prices, as well as increased overall feed, fuel and fertilizer costs have dramatically affected all producers’ production budgets.

Despite relatively good cattle markets, high out-of-pocket input costs have affected management and nutrition decisions for the cowherd. Often the immediate response by producers has been to reduce overall inputs into the cowherd.  Moving calving date, windrow grazing and deferred winter grazing are all methods to reduce overall feed inputs into the herd. Unfortunately, reducing or eliminating supplementation programs may also be considered as a way to reduce annual costs. While every producer should be interested in ways to reduce costs, current research indicates pre-calving management is still very important to the cowherd, and that cutting back or eliminating pre-calving supplementation of spring-calving herds may have important consequences to consider.

Research in the 1960s and 1970s suggested that cow condition and management prior to calving was important. Data from the University of Wyoming in 1975 showed that cow nutrition 30 days prior to calving had a dramatic effect on calf health and survivability. However, in recent years, attempts to dramatically reduce cow-calf input costs by changing management styles and pushing back calving date have perhaps lulled us into forgetting how important pre-calving nutrition is, not only to the cow, but more importantly to the calf.

Several recent studies all indicate that pre-calving nutrition, while having variable responses in the cow, almost always shows a positive response in the calves produced from those pregnancies. A study conducted at the University of Wyoming in 2003 (Table 1) suggests that cows will respond to a high-fat pre-calving supplement by positively impacting the immune transfer to the calf. In this case, cows were fed a traditional corn/SBM supplement or high fat supplement (safflower meal) for 60 days prior to calving. Calves were sampled 12 to 24 hours after birth to determine the level of transfer to the calf. Antibody transfer, as well fatty acid transfer, was enhanced by feeding the supplement for two months prior to calving. While they were unable to show a significant impact on overall health, number of calves that were treated for sickness, was reduced by supplementation.

Two Nebraska studies (Tables 2 and 3) have also shown that pre-calving supplements are beneficial not only for weaning weights, but also for subsequent pre-breeding weights and overall conception rates of heifers produced from those pregnancies. Both of these studies were three-year experiments designed to evaluate the impact of pre-calving supplements. The two studies report a 13-pound (steers) and 17-pound (heifers) increase in weaning weights, perhaps explained by the immune transfer data in Table 1. Assuming that a 42 percent cube costs approximately $400/ton, and cubes are fed for 90 days, feed costs for supplementing are approximately $18/cow. Granted, there are no equipment and labor costs included in this calculation, but I would argue that we can effectively supplement cows three times per week to get the same response, and cattle are routinely checked at least two times per week, anyway. Not factored into the potential benefits are the small, positive improvements in first service conception rates with the cows, as well as the large positive impact reported in heifer calves produced from these pregnancies.

Finally, some additional information from a cooperative project between Miles City USDA-ARS Ft. Keogh and the University of Wyoming suggests that pre-calving management may also impact carcass quality and meat attributes. In this study, cows during the last third of gestation grazed either a native range pasture or were moved to improved (higher quality) meadows. The cows were separated, grazing native range or improved pasture, for 60 days. Immediately prior to calving, the cattle were moved together and managed similarly as one group. Calves were weaned and backgrounded in Miles City, and were finished at the University of Wyoming. Steers that originated from dams grazing improved pasture had more adipose (fat) cells within the ribeye muscle, and ribeye steaks from these same steers were more tender (lower shear force values) than steers originating from dams grazing native range. This may have implications for vertically integrated beef systems, and also for those producers who finish their own cattle and direct market their beef to consumers.

The studies reported above all suggest what we have always known – that “you can’t starve a profit out of a cow,” and that management decisions often have not only direct effects, but system-wide impacts. Pre-calving nutrition may appear to be an area to reduce costs, especially if you are moving calving and breeding dates to later in the spring, but there still may be consequences for pre-calving management not only on calves produced that spring, but also in the replacement females that are kept and remain in the herd.