Cowherd efficiency: chasing profitabilityWritten by Christy Martinez
“There may be a better way than what you’re doing,” says UW Extension Livestock Specialist Scott Lake. “We throw around the term ‘efficiency,’ but it’s important to keep it in context, and to maintain a systems efficiency, and ‘efficiency’ does not always equal profitability, because it’s a two-sided equation. If you have a low-input cow, you may end up with a low-output calf.”
“The biggest opportunity I see to increase feed utilization, or to decrease waste, is to feed to nutrient requirements,” says Lake. “Many times we see overfeeding and underfeeding, and the dramatic effects of both.”
Lake says body condition scoring is one tool to manage a cowherd, but he says it doesn’t tell anything about how that cow is being fed today.
“It’s a window into our past,” he says. “You can get an idea of the plane of nutrition she’s been on for the last couple months, and in the wintertime it’s tricky because you have to look through the hair. What you’re evaluating is the fat level on the animal, and her protein, to determine, over the long haul, if you’re gaining or losing. That affects how we feed animals.”
The thin animals in a herd would have a body condition score of 3, while the fat animals usually average a 7.
“The points to look at are the hip bones – does she look like a dairy cow, or a show-looking calf that’s really fat?” asks Lake. “Cows that are thinner, with a BCS of 3 or 4, see a dramatic affect on the postpartum interval.”
Lake says that postpartum interval for individual cows affects the whole-system efficiency.
“We want to have a calf every 365 days. Normal gestation length in an Angus cow is about 282 days, which gives us about 83 days for her to calve, begin lactating and get back into shape to be bred. If we have cows that are thin, they will barely start cycling by the time that 83 days is over,” he explains. “If you AI or invest in the best bulls, that doesn’t even matter if the cow isn’t cycling. Nutrition is extremely important.”
Feeding for heifers
When managing young cows, Lake says the challenge is that they’re growing, lactating for the first time and experiencing new nutrient demands, and they still have to start cycling to get bred.
“If we can have a heifer on an increased plane of nutrition, which is challenging because she’s lactating, and get her to gain weight, we can reduce the postpartum interval, but that’s the reason why we usually back our heifers up two or three weeks to give them some extra time,” he states.
Body condition should fluctuate
Lakes says it’s wasteful to keep cows fat all the time.
“There’s data from Nebraska that says that cows that fluctuate in condition increase their longevity and they’re better cows, but the trick is when they fluctuate,” he says. “They have different requirements through the year, and in the fall when we wean them, in the early trimester of gestation, their requirements aren’t that high and it’s ok if they get a little thin. The point is we need to have them where we want them by the time they calve again, and by the time we get to the third trimester.”
Uniform herds are more efficient
Regarding overfeeding and underfeeding, Lake says thin cows don’t compete very well.
“We have fat and thin cows in our herd, and we feed to an average, so the more uniform we can keep our herd, the better, and management groups would be the ideal scenario,” he says. “With management groups we can have a group that’s thin and needs to be fed separately – they need more feed, and they need to be able to get to the feed.”
Examine economics of
In answering a question as to whether an operation can get away without feeding protein for one year, Lake says the cows would survive, but he questions the economic impact, saying there would potentially be a three-year effect.
“If, in 2009, when feed costs went through the roof, we had cut back on hay and protein and had thin calves, then in 2010 our calf vigor would have been poor, and the affect on colostrum quality and decreased milk product would lead to bad weaning weights, which would affect profitability. We’d also decrease our postpartum interval, so now we won’t have calves on a 365-day calendar, and we’ll have an overall decrease in conception rates,” he explains, continuing, “Now we’ve got a decreased calf crop in 2011, and if that had been a real-life scenario, we’re now in record calf prices with a poor calf crop – we’ve got light calves, and not as many as we should.”
“There can be a dramatic economic impact from keeping our cows too thin, and not managing them the way we should,” he notes.
Keeping that proper nutrition also affects culling decisions, says Lake.
“We always try to manage cows so they calve in a short, tight window, and cull options are usually based on whether she’s bred or not. When you get into this scenario, you have to keep everything that’s open and you lose your culling power, you’re not making genetic advancement and you’re keeping the poor doers. Having those cows in good condition, having a shorter post partum interval and getting bred back on time affects you all the way down, beyond just calf weights this year,” he says.
Nutrition: numbers are key
“We spend a lot of time flipping through bull catalogues, looking at RFI (residual feed intake), testing for it and chasing product quality and growth, but reproduction is five times more important than product quality and five times more important than growth,” states Lake. “More calves on the ground is more important than less calves that are really growthy. Numbers are key.”
“Nutrition is the key. It’s said that reproductive performance is the number one indicator of the economic success of a cow/calf producer, and nutrition is the key to optimizing that reproductive success. Feeding the proper amount is extremely important, because the principle factor influencing reproduction is under-nutrition. When we have reproductive problems, 90 percent of the time it’s due to nutrition.”
Feed AI heifers well
The average age of puberty in a heifer is 12 to 14 months, which is when they’re typically bred for the first time, and UW Extension Livestock Specialist Scott Lake says that if they’re not kept on proper nutrition and are too thin, that puberty can be delayed.
“If we have heifers that are slow-growing and low-input, we’ll have a hard time getting them bred on time,” he says. “There are many philosophies on developing heifers, but if you spend the money to synch and AI heifers, you ought to feed them pretty well. If you will have natural service and low input, and you want to rough them through and put a bull on them, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do low-input heifer development and they breed up and stay in the herd, those are really good cows.
“The argument is that if you put the money into heifers to synch and AI, you want the highest chance of success, and if you don’t feed them well you’ll only get 50 percent to cycle, and only 50 percent of those will breed.”
Cows, heifers require different nutrition
According to UW Extension Livestock Specialist Scott Lake, from calving to breeding there are dramatic fluctuations in the nutrient requirements of a cow.
“If we don’t adjust how much we feed according to the stage of production, we’re feeding way more than we should, and it’s not efficient on the system basis,” says Lake.
He suggests following a 7-9-11 rule for a cow’s nutrition through her reproductive cycle.
In period one, or mid-gestation, Lake says the cow is in maintenance, and not lactating, and her requirements are pretty low.
“If she’s a dry cow, her protein requirements are around six to seven percent. In mid- to late-gestation, her requirements are somewhere around eight or nine percent, and in lactation they’re around 11 percent,” he explains. “We need to fluctuate her feeds throughout the year.”
In addition, Lake says a young cow needs even more attention.
“We have to feed her through maintenance, lactation, regaining weight, cycling and getting bred, and that’s a huge nutrient demand and we need to be sure we feed to get her there so we can maintain the yearly calving interval,” he says. “For a heifer to gain a body condition requires almost twice as much energy as it does for a mature cow.”
Lake says there is a 26 percent increase in the maintenance requirements of an Angus heifer compared to a mature Angus cow, and that jumps up to a 39 percent increase between the two in the Simmental breed.